The question raised by Richard Tanne’s film about Barack Obama’s first date with Michelle Robinson is as simple as the picture itself: if the characters didn’t bear these names—if they were Harry and Sally, for instance—how would we rate “Southside With You”? The answer, one admits, is that you’d probably find it a charming but slight portrait of the halting beginnings of romance. But of course, the names matter, and our knowledge that the man and woman have a remarkable future before them adds a degree of heft to their daylong excursion. The movie might, in fact, have come across as heavy-handed pseudo-prophecy were the conceit less deftly handled. As it is, the film still remains charming, but becomes weightier than if the man and woman were anonymous.
The situation is a straightforward one, with the script hewing to the known outline of events, though it imagines much of the extended conversation. In Chicago in the summer of 1989, Robinson is an associate at a prestigious law firm, acutely conscious of how her white male colleagues view—and judge—her. Obama is a Harvard law student interning at the firm, and Robinson, his office adviser, has studiously avoided his eager invitations to go out. She’s persuaded, though, to accompany him to a meeting of a group of public-housing activists he’s headed in the past, though she’s insistent that it’s not a date.
Obama picks her up in his beat-up car, and she quickly discovers that the meeting isn’t until considerably later and, as he planned, they have plenty of time to kill beforehand. They spend it visiting an exhibition of African-American art and strolling through the park, sharing stories about their families and their upbringing. At the meeting, about the difficulties of securing city support for building a much-needed community center, Obama, treated by the women as a returning hero, uses the oratorical skill for which he’ll become famous to encourage the crowd not to give up the fight and use smart tactics to turn the campaign around. Robinson suspects that he might have planned the session to impress her, but finds herself impressed nonetheless.
At a bar having drinks afterward, Barack opens up about his unresolved feelings toward the Kenyan father who essentially abandoned him, and Michelle encourages him to deal with his anger. The two then go to see Spike Lee’s controversial “Do the Right Thing,” and outside the theatre they encounter one of the firm’s partners, whose inability to comprehend the picture’s conclusion Obama confronts with a disarmingly benign interpretation that, like his community organizing speech, offers an early suggestion of the political skill that will be integral to his later success. The picture ends with a visit to a Baskin Robbins shop that recalls a snatch of earlier conversation and, as an exhibition of Obama’s sensitivity, insures that despite Michelle’s earlier trepidation, this will not be the couple’s last date.
There will, of course, be those who choose to look at “Southside With You” as a piece of hagiography, and its attitude toward the characters is certainly positive. But those who gag on any portrayal of President Obama that isn’t condemnatory can always return to Dinesh D’Souza’a polemic about him to get their fill of vitriol. In any event, Tanne’s treatment hardly presents Barack and Michelle as plaster saints. He’s more than a little manipulative and ambitious, obviously troubled by his father’s absence (a subject he’ll eventually confront in book form), and—at least if the remarks of some of the women at the community meeting are accurate—inclined to date women who aren’t “sisters.” (He also smokes way too much.) She, on the other hand, is defensive about some of the choices she’s made (such as setting aside cases she really believes in to make her mark at the firm with higher-profile ones), clearly unhappy about being pigeonholed by those who can affect her career for good or ill, and pretty quick to lash out when she feels insulted. Simply put, both Obama and Robinson are depicted in a far more rounded, nuanced fashion than one might expect.
The shadings in the characters come not just from the writing but the fine performances of Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. The latter has the burden of playing the younger version of someone who’s instantly recognizable, and though a strong physical similarity helps, he goes well beyond mere imitation to convey the combination of intensity and self-doubt that Obama must have felt as a young man. Sumpter doesn’t have to contend with quite the same degree of expectation about appearance, but she brings to Robinson the strength and resolve that people have come to recognize in the First Lady. She convinces you that Michelle was no more the shrinking violet in 1989 than she is now. Serving as virtually a third onscreen star is Patrick Scola’s cinematography, which bathes the daytime Chicago scenes in a glow while bringing a touch of grit to the images when appropriate; and the choice of period songs as background (and sometimes foreground) is on the money.
Except for those who are congenitally unable to admit that there’s any good in Barack and Michelle Obama, Tanne’s imagining of the first couple’s first date should prove both sweet and surprisingly revealing.