Richard Tanne, writer/director of Southside With You, a fictional chronicle of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, won a playwriting award as a teenager, in his home state of New Jersey. Tanne’s dialogue-heavy first feature might have been better suited to television, but here the fledgling screenwriter opted to present the heady Obama first get-together instead for the big screen.
The Southside With You premise has three basic problems as I (and others) have seen it. Firstly, Tanne’s admiration for the first couple easily leads him down the road to the big pitfall of hagiography. As Jordan Hoffman of The Guardian succinctly puts it, “Films glorifying sitting leaders are a little more North Korea’s bag.”
Second (and this is a corollary to the first pitfall), Tanne’s characters feel “on loan,” as Manohla Dargis indicates, writing in the NY Times–eventually making “for dull company because too many lines and details serve the great-man-to-be story rather than the romance.”
Finally (and this is perhaps Tanne’s biggest obstacle to overcome), the exploration of a “first date” does not lend itself to much suspense in terms of plot. Indeed, without a significant “dark” moment at the end of the second act—leading the protagonist to figure out and resolve his/her conundrum in the third—such narratives tend to lack the requisite import to effectively impress an audience, who clamour for a certifiable “rags-to-riches” denouement.
Despite these obstacles, I am willing to argue that Southside With You has enough charm to bypass the obligatory appellation of “Indie throwaway.” Tanne manages to soften the imprint of hagiography by humanising his portrait of our first African-American president. While Parker Sawyers lacks big enough ears and a lighter skin colour, he does an excellent job of capturing Obama’s charisma. David Edelstein, perceptively writing in The Vulture, notes that Sawyers “captures Obama’s odd rhythms, especially those confident stammers, during which we wait for him to craft the exact right phrases and marvel at how sexy self-restraint and logic can be.”
Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson, is also quite convincing as the first-lady-to-be. When we first meet her, she’s working as an attorney at the same law firm where Barack is ensconced–he a summer associate from Harvard Law School. Michelle doesn’t want Barack to think of this as a “date”—that’s understandable as she not only considers him socially beneath her—but seeks to avoid jeopardising her position at the firm, dating someone from the office. These impediments fail to deter Barack, as he’s determined to capture the heart of a woman with whom he has much in common (despite having an overwhelming number of conflicting tastes, they appear to be drawn to one another by acknowledging and embracing the conflicts that superficially set them apart).
Barack and Michelle drift from one venue to another throughout the day, including a lunch in the park, attendance at an Afrocentric art exhibition, the church where Barak was a community organiser a year earlier, a movie theatre playing Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” and a late-night-foray at an ice cream parlour.
During all this, we become privy to Barack and Michelle’s engaging banter which drives the narrative forward (it’s the small touches that enamour, such as a discussion regarding the nascent couple’s favourite Stevie Wonder song). In perhaps the film’s biggest moment, Barack impresses Michele when he delivers an inspirational talk before a group of disaffected south side community denizens, deeply troubled by the lack of progress in securing the funds to build a community centre.
Southside With You cannot avoid the overarching reverent tone toward Barack Obama and perhaps something a little more controversial (such as rumours of Obama’s bi-sexuality) might have been worked into the narrative, spicing things up a bit more; and certainly the knowledge of what’s to come, as well as a plot (by its very nature) unable to effect much suspense, leaves Tanne’s effort to be dubbed as only a modest affair.
Nonetheless, these days there are few films that depict African- Americans on a high intellectual plane—and we must be grateful to Tanne, for reminding us (through his excellent dialogue) that the majority of the American people selected Barack and Michelle Obama as our President and First Lady, precisely because they are smart, sophisticated people, deserving of our approbation today and in the future.