In 2012, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to kiss and tell in a campaign ad, when he and his First Lady recounted the already-mythic story of their first date. "It was a cool date," said Michelle. "Take tips, gentlemen," said Barack.
As if that wasn't mortifying enough for Sasha and Malia, now there's a romantic film about it: Premiering to strong reviews and Before Sunrise comparisons at Sundance, Richard Tanne's Southside with You turns the Obamas' origin story into a surprisingly charming and thoughtful date movie that doubles as a politics story. This corny premise shouldn't work—and yet it does.
The Obamas met in 1989, when the Harvard Law student Barack began working at a Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, where Michelle was his mentor. Played by a prim, assertive Tika Sumpter, Michelle is first seen primping her hair and being teased by her mother about her nice outfit. "I thought this wasn't a date," her mother says. "I thought he was just another smooth-talking brother…"
Not-quite look-alike Parker Sawyers plays Barack with laid-back swagger: When we first see him, he's leaning back in an armchair, wearing a sleeveless tank top, and sucking on a cigarette. Soon, he's driving in a horrific Datsun Sentra, sleeves rolled up, blowing smoke out of the window while bopping to Janet Jackson's "Miss You Much." Before long, he and Michelle are debating with lawyerly precision about whether they are technically on a date or not.
"How many times do I have to tell you that we are not going out together?" Michelle says.
"Well, we are out," says Obama. "And we are together."
Wisely, Sumpter and Sawyers don't do impressions. Instead, they capture the Obamas' essential cadence and gestures as they flirt and talk. Sawyers' lanky Barack won't even try to hide his ego ("So I'm cute?"); Sumpter's Michelle won't hide her smarts. The two walk through the Art Institute of Chicago. They trade stories about family and verses from the Gwendolyn Brooks poem "We Real Cool." Later, Barack ogles Michelle in the park, as she dances in a little drum circle. Then they spar over how to deal with white, corporate bosses at their law firm.
Toward the end of the night, they head to a movie theater to see the new film Do the Right Thing—and Barack mocks David Denby's notorious New York review, which predicted that the film might cause riots. (Spike Lee once told me, "Barack told me the first date he took Michelle to was Do the Right Thing. I said, 'Thank God I made it. Otherwise you would have taken her to Soul Man.' Michelle would have been like, What's wrong with this brother? ")
The dialogue gets a little too perfect at moments. The script is so economically crammed with meaningful riffs that you begin to crave a bit more casual small talk. But Southside with You works largely because of the way it avoids the frivolous clichés of modern Hollywood romance: Opposites do not attract. There's no wacky meet-cute, no run through the airport, no contrived conflict, no manic pixie dream girl. Barack and Michelle don't just end up with each other because they're played by the two most attractive actors in the movie. They're just two very smart young attorneys, sparring with words, talking about ideas, and checking each other out. They get turned on by substance, not quirks—and it would be nice if that wasn't such an extremely rare thing in films, whether they're about the leader of the free world or not.
Sawyers' wry wit gets laughs throughout. The romance's centerpiece seduction occurs in the unlikeliest setting and with nothing but words: Barack drags Michelle to a community organization meeting in a dusty church on the Southside, where he, the Harvard guy, is welcomed like a returning son. It's ostensibly a meeting about a community center, but it's really an opportunity for Barack to strut his best stuff.
Barack delivers an inspiring speech about social change, but Michelle knows it's really a come-on meant for her: He's shaking his tail-feathers. And she likes it. Barack tells the members they can turn the city council's "no" around and into "on," as in "carry on." By the time he's done, he's turned Michelle's half-hearted no into a yes we can.
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