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The Obamas’ First Date Gets the ‘Before Sunrise’ Treatment in ‘Southside With You’

The Obamas' First Date Gets the 'Before Sunrise' Treatment in 'Southside With You'

A movie about Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson’s first date was one of Sundance’s biggest question marks. Would “Southside With You” be anything more than pro-POTUS propaganda, and can you really fashion a drama from a mundane incident in the lives of two of the world’s most visible people?

The standing ovation that followed “Southside’s” credits answered those questions with a resounding yes. Richard Tanne’s movie turns out to be as much “Medicine for Melancholy” as “Before Sunrise,” a series of conversations in which two young African-American lawyers challenge each other to push for their rightful place in the world. Tanne’s script sticks largely to the factual outlines of the future Obamas’ first date, although he takes the print-the-legend approach to the inclusion of a community organizing meeting amidst their trip to an art gallery, a screening of “Do the Right Thing,” and a first kiss infused with the taste of Baskin-Robbins chocolate. The details, however, are wholly imagined, pointing subtly but firmly to their collective decisions to make a difference in the world rather than making a law-firm salary. 

“Southside” goes light on politics and foreshadowing, with the two debating such hot-button issues as Stevie Wonder’s best album — Barack favors “Innervisions,” Michelle “Talking Book” — and touching on Obama’s relationship with his father. (Along the way, he also makes a stronger argument in favor of “Good Times” than the Sundance documentary about Norman Lear.) A run-in with a white law-firm partner outside the “Do the Right Thing” screening points up Obama’s diplomatic skills, while his semi-impromptu speech to a community group in Altgeld Gardens — his former stomping grounds as a political organizer — shows a gift for channeling popular anger towards political objectives. But much of “Southside” is simply a romance, a wistful and sweet one that charmed critics across the board. After the screening, Sumpter said her primary objective in making the film was to make “a love story with people that looked like me” — an especially poignant point as the controversy about Hollywood’s lack of diversity hangs over the entire festival. Of course, Barack and Michelle aren’t just any pair of fledgling lovebirds, but Sumpter’s point raises an unspoken question: If “Southside With You” weren’t about one of the world’s most famous couples, could it have been made at all?

Reviews of “Southside With You”

Tim Grierson, Screen Daily

An origin story of sorts that dramatises the beginning of Barack and Michelle Obama’s relationship, “Southside With You” is an affectionate look at two young people on their first date, unaware of what history has in store for them. To be sure, first-time feature filmmaker Richard Tanne’s dialogue-heavy movie is really only engaging because it’s about the future President and First Lady of the United States, but that ends up being the point: this fictionalized reimagining seeks to remind viewers that, not that long ago, they were just two young people with their whole lives stretching out in front of them. Though sometimes achingly on-the-nose in its attempts to foreshadow these characters’ destiny, “Southside With You” radiates enough wistful charm to overcome the well-meaning earnestness.

Justin Chang, Variety

“We have to let go of judgment,” a young Barack Obama tells a group of frustrated community organizers, encouraging them to place themselves in the shoes of those they’re up against. While most of the intended viewers for “Southside With You” are probably already inclined to listen to their president, it’s nice to think at least a few non-supporters in the audience might be moved by the spirit of empathy that suffuses this soulful and disarmingly romantic snapshot of Obama’s fateful first date with Michelle Robinson on a summer day in 1989 Chicago, long before either guessed they’d someday be president and First Lady of the United States. On the surface a mellow and agreeably meandering “Before Sunrise”-style walkabout, Richard Tanne’s writing-directing debut deepens into a pointed, flowing conversation about the many challenges (and varieties) of African-American identity, the need for both idealism and compromise, and the importance of making peace with past disappointments in order to effect meaningful change in the future.

Sean P. Means, Salt Lake Tribune

Along the way there are long conversations — about work, Michelle’s supportive parents, Barack’s still-burning anger about his father, and even their favorite Stevie Wonder songs — that, in the vein of “Before Sunrise,” trace the pair slowly falling in love. Tanne’s dialogue is rich and thoughtful (regardless of whether it’s historically accurate), and Sumpter and newcomer Sawyers inhabit the roles of the future First Couple with easygoing charm.

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter

Tanne keeps the good talk coming, along with fluctuating moods and nuance. Of course it helps that the two individuals are attractive, extremely well-spoken, serious and, due to educational success, clearly on the path to distinguished professional careers. At the outset, we see a bit of Michelle’s family life, as she still lives at home with her mother and adored father, now sidelined with MS. She lauds her family to Barack and is whip-smart, a real catch, more impressive, it must be said, than he is at this stage. His skills may be visible, but they’re not yet as sharp and wholly formed.

Josh Dickey, Mashable

Make no mistake: “Southside With You” keeps its feet firmly planed in Chicago, and on that very day. There are no flash-forwards, no winky allusions to the presidency that is to come. The connections are much more nuanced than that, rewarding the audience’s awareness of what’s to come, but not hanging this film on it. Truly, if you’d never heard the name Barack Obama, “Southside With You” could stand alone as a sweet, mature drama with layers of social and racial issues, family dynamics and, yes — romance.

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

Captured by Patrick Scola’s gauzy cinematography and scored by Stephen James Taylor’s dreamy compositions, this budding love affair is rendered gracefully, with little schmaltz. In some ways, I wish Tanne had just made a straightforward romance with this creative team, rather than a story that’s slightly hampered by its historical hook. But, then we probably wouldn’t get the engaging community meeting scene, which would be a loss. As is, “Southside With You” is airy and pleasant, a modest film that gets by on charm and aesthetics. We of course know what mighty things await these two young lovebirds, but for its brief spell, “Southside With You’s” first blushes feel plenty big enough.

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