Richard Tanne’s Southside With You is a film for fans of the Obamas, a mellow love story attired in a straightforward biographical telling of Michelle and Barack Obama’s first date. It’s difficult for American audience to not know the cultural significance of the Obama couple. But even without the current event context, the story of two young African-American people working in the same law firm, knowing they will ascend elsewhere with a partial life plan and uncertainties, stands alone marvelously.
The film opens on good-natured jabs at the humdrumness of their origins. We first see Barack and Michelle in a common unremarkable existence, not surrounded by the grandeur of the White House, but the dumpiness of their humble abodes and plain yet loving relatives. “Barack a-whatta?” retorts Michelle’s father, as the script humorously winks to Obama’s future fame. And then there’s a lingering shot of Michelle staring disapprovingly at a hole at the bottom of Barack’s secondhand Datsun. Showing that greatness often sprouts in not-so opulent circumstances, Tanne does not shy the camera away from the holes and dents of their possessions and home lives.
A romance film sounds like a peculiar biographical angle, but Tanne utilizes the dating tropes as a potent stage for discourse. True to the sources, Michelle is reluctant to date her essential co-worker and knows that her carefully guarded professional reputation is at stake if she is seen dating a black boy—“cute” black boy, if you will. Played by Tika Sumpter, Michelle Robinson rebuffs Barack’s niceness with sass, though she can’t help but be charmed by Barack’s good-nature and intellectual yearnings.
Played by Parker Sawyer, Barack finds his way into Michelle’s heart and brain. Not by buying her pies (she’s an ice cream person), but by conversing about his struggles. Obama vocalizes resentment toward his absent father and his desire to do something great. While there is no accurate recording to totally transcribe their real-life date conversation verbatim, Tanne employs a minimalistic setting to focus on two people sharing their background, some known to the audience, some that provide new insights.
To further these character studies, Tanne inserts thematic artistic licenses. While Barack’s speech scene at the church community organization is fabricated within the frame of the “first date,” it foreshadows Obama incorporating input and rhetoric techniques from Michelle. Tanne also externalizes Michelle’s professional concerns by staging a low-key climatic moment where she runs into her white employer outside a movie theatre and Barack defuses the seemingly banal conversational tension by concocting a faux-interpretation of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing to entertain their employer’s white mindset.
Following this intense moment for Michelle, Barack makes it up to her with the simple gesture of Baskin Robbins ice cream. Over an ice cream cone, they share a first kiss at the intersection of Dorchester and East 53rd Street. Fun fact: Today, there’s a plague over this area that quotes Barack’s interview with Oprah, "On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate."
Whether or not you agreed with Obama’s presidential policies, this movie is a sweet intellectual romance about two black people, sharing aspirations and exchanging input on how exactly to achieve them. Perhaps even Obama’s critics can agree, there was a time where Barack and Michelle had dreams like us, dreams they confided in each other, and then to millions.