Sundance 2016: Obama's First Date in the Lovely 'Southside With You'
by Alex Billington
January 24, 2016
Pretty much everyone who loves movies is a fan of the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series from Richard Linklater. They represent the pinnacle of love stories in cinema, and they're hard to top. The closest any film has come to feeling like this is Richard Tanne's Southside With You, a story about Barack Obama's first date with Michelle Robinson in Chicago in back in 1989, many years before he would become President of the United States. The film just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the same venue where I saw, and went head over heels crazy for just a few years ago, Linklater's Before Midnight. It's a very sweet, engaging, and inspiring love story that unfolds as Barack takes Michelle around the city over the course of one day.
Newcomer Parker Sawyers plays Barack Obama, and he nails it. His performance is so good it's easy to forget you're watching an actor, as it seems so much like this is really the Obama we all now know, only 27 years ago. Tika Sumpter, who also produced the film, plays Michelle Robinson with complete confidence and brings a much needed sensitivity to the film. The two get together for a "meeting", but as Barack takes her from an art show to a community gathering to a movie (Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing!), it becomes very clear that this is a date and he really wants to keep dating her. They reminiscence about everything from urban culture to politics to being a good person to their college years to their favorite ice cream flavor.
Judging everyone less, and respecting every individual person more, is the big lesson to be learned from this film. There's a wonderful scene where Obama is giving a speech at a local church where citizens are upset that funding for a community center has fallen through. The moment that wins over Michelle is when he delivers a line about how important it is to imagine walking in someone else's shoes, even if that might seem completely impossible. It really hit me emotionally. While Obama is talking in the background, the camera focuses on Michelle's face, and you can practically see the sparks in her eyes lighting up for this man. This is one of the moments where the passion building inside of her is almost tangible, and it's beautiful to watch.
While it's very easy to compare this film to Before Sunrise, and not in a bad way, another good comparison is the little-known indie Medicine for Melancholy, which also played at Sundance in 2008. Southside With You has the same charm as the Before series, and it has the same kind of moments of reflection and intimate discussion. There is so much to learn from watching two people fall in love, and this film understands that, as every exchange has valuable lessons. It's going to be just as enjoyable to revisit, as there are so many intriguing things they talk about as they wander around the city. It's inspiring to realize this is the man that will eventually become the 44th President of the United States - an admirable, charming, intelligent person.
Alex's Sundance 2016 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing