No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, you’re probably hard-pressed to think of a presidential first date you’d like to see dramatized onscreen. In his modest but beautifully wrought feature debut, writer-director Richard Tanne makes the best possible choice: Southside with You is a vivid, imaginative portrayal of the first date between the woman then known as Michelle Robinson and the suitor who works hard to win her, the young Barack Obama.
Michelle (Tika Sumpter), a few years into her career as a lawyer at Chicago’s Sidley Austin, accepts an invitation from Barack (Parker Sawyers), a summer associate at the firm and her advisee, to attend a meeting at a Southside church: A group of citizens are trying to get a community center built for their kids, and Barack used to work with them until he decided to leave for law school. The film opens with Michelle getting ready for this excursion, which she keeps insisting is not a date: She’s fastened her hair into a tight, neat, businesslike twist, but she’s also wearing a floaty orange sherbet-colored silk blouse, a nod to her future as a fashionable but fairly practical First Lady. Her parents can’t help noting how much care she’s taken in the presentation department, and they tease her a little. They also quiz her, as parents will, and she deflects their questions. Long after Barack has picked her up in his beater—she can see the street whizzing by through a hole in the floor—she’s still deflecting.
Michelle makes the terms of this nondate clear from the minute she steps into that car. Barack agrees—and keeps agreeing—to her terms, though he uses his stealth charm to turn this potentially straightforward outing into a daylong romantic interlude that will also, as it turns out, shape the country’s future. Tanne has shown Barack getting ready for this nondate as well: When we first see him, he’s slouched in a chair, reading a book and smoking a cigarette—he pulls himself together and looks terrifically suave in his own way, though only later does he truly shine. He starts the nondate by taking Michelle to the Art Institute, where he impresses her with his knowledge of the artist whose work is on display there, Ernie Barnes, whose vibrant paintings capture elements of black American life in the ’70s. This dazzling, surefooted young woman begins to soften toward her would-be paramour, but his work is hardly finished yet. It’s only later, when Barack addresses the small but fiery assembly at the church meeting—he uses common sense and good humor to galvanize them in the face of what they believe is a lost cause—that his extraordinary leadership qualities simmer to the surface. And that’s when Michelle, who comes from a proper, middle-class family, begins to see traits in this young man—raised by a single mother, and harboring little love for his deadbeat father—that distinguish him from everyone else.
Southside with You isn’t, of course, a documentary. Who really knows what this first date was like? Tanne drew on the public record and interviews, and has estimated that the general roadmap he’s drawn is “about 90 percent accurate.” But as a work of imagination inspired by fact, the film shimmers with warmth. Sawyers captures both the easy, loping rhythms of our future 44th President’s speech and the long-stride elegance of his carriage. Sumpter is equally terrific: She doesn’t quite resemble Michelle Obama, but she manifests perfectly the future First Lady’s under-the-radar determination, always tempered by empathy. As first dates go, this was a doozy. Tanne presents it as a sterling illustration of what two people can do when they face forward, together.