Michelle Robinson is about to not go on a date. It’s strictly a meeting with an associate at her work firm. Nobody believes her, but Michelle is resolute. She gets picked up, ready to go the meeting, and is thrown a curveball. “The meeting starts at 4,” her date, Barack, says. “We’ve got a few hours. Let’s go to a museum and get something to eat.”
And so begins the meet-cute for Michelle and Barack. They go to a museum, the park, lunch, the meeting, and the movies. “You’re a good speaker,” Michelle tells Barack as they walk after he speaks at the meeting. “Ever considered going into politics?”
“Maybe,” Barack Obama laughs. Southside With You is a respectful, romantic look at the President and First Lady’s first date. It is mostly true, with a few events that happened later in real life brought in. With a film that is mostly walking and talking, three things must be on-point to succeed: performances, dialogue, and atmosphere.
Tika Sumpter as Michelle and Parker Sawyers as Barack both do a fantastic job playing the famous couple. It never feels like an imitation, but more of an organic interpretation of both of them. Their discussions about forgiveness, change, hopes, dreams, and the issues of their communities and lives are effortless and engaging. The script, while it has to repeat some things to stretch out the run time, is fluid.
While I have never been to the South side of Chicago, the film sets up the atmosphere of the area well. It feels worn-in and lived-in. Cultural references that are brought in just amplify the authenticity of the environment. Each setting serves a purpose.
After the film ended, I had decided I liked it. There were just a few things that bothered me. “The characters refer to issues, but they never speak too passionately about them,” I told my family as we discussed the movie afterwards. “It seemed like it had a lot of views, but played it safe. It was too tame.” I cited a part of the film where Barack and Michelle see Do the Right Thing and see their boss coming out of the theater. The (white) boss talks to them, and has an issue with the ending. Barack explains it to him, explaining the logic behind the ending. The boss is thankful and praises Barack. Afterwards, Barack tells Michelle he didn’t tell the boss that the real answer to the boss’s question was that the black characters acted in the movie because they were angry.
“Maybe it was tame so white audiences would be comfortable with it,” I suggested. “Besides, in the film, Barack gives a big speech to encourage members of his community. Yet when we see the city and community, it always looks great. The streets are clean, the children are laughing and playing. I don’t see the struggle that Barack talks about. If the film wanted to go for it, then it missed its chance. It also is an extremely flattering portrayal of the Obamas. The whole film is filmed with a rosy nostalgia.”
“But you always remember your first date with nostalgia,” my dad said. “It’s a first date.”
That’s when I understood the movie better. I was expecting the film to be edgy. It’s about a controversial president. It’s about him as a person. He has some unpopular policies. Why aren’t those explored, I thought as I watched the film. Why is this movie so… romantic? Where is the thing that made America attracted to Barack Obama? Where is the radicalism?
However, maybe the radical thing is that it is just a first date movie about a black couple. As a white movie-goer who doesn’t see many “black films,” I rarely see a positive portrayal of a black couple. It says something about our culture that I immediately thought that since it was a movie about black people, it had to be political. With so much of culture portraying blacks as always being angry, to see a movie where a couple is given a nostalgic, rose-colored date, is what is truly remarkable about the film. There is a quiet restraint, whether it be from not being 80’s-tastic, to not making too many references to the future of the Obamas, to not being too political, Southside With You is content with being a first-date movie. It doesn’t have an agenda.
This isn’t a film about what attracted America to the Obamas. It’s about what attracted the Obamas to each other.