Sundance 2016: Obama's First Date in the Lovely 'Southside With You'

January 24, 2016

Southside With You

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

Find more posts: Review, Sundance 16



Uggg, why is this even a thing?

Higgens on Jan 24, 2016


Why shouldn't it?

Duane on Jan 24, 2016


I asked first.

Higgens on Jan 24, 2016


You know, before seeing it I would've said that might be a fair question. After seeing it, though, I can say it's a very moving and inspiring story. Same as any love story on the big screen. And as @kitano0:disqus mentions above, they make a great couple.

Alex Billington on Jan 25, 2016


First off.. thank you Alex for the response. Im glad you liked it. Like I mentioned to you before via email... I appreciate the diverse coverage you guys put into this site. I found gems like 'Dear White People', 'People Place Things', and'Top 5' thru your site. I believe though my question posed was not answered. Why shouldn't this be a thing? I understand the fairness of the question. What i don't understand i the resistance. The last time you posted about this film on your forum... people used terms like "shitty drama com" and "bad president=bs film"....without even seeing it. I also looked up your forum when you wrote about Oliver Stone's 'W'....same thing. People went all in on their partisanship and used that as a template to whether or not they were going to see the film or not. And I..not being a Bush fan.... thoroughly enjoyed 'W'. Look. I may be more liberal than conservative....but Im not going to judge a film...particularly before I've seen it.... based on politics. Im going to go with an open mind. (To be honest the only film I refused to watch based on politics was 'An American Carol') I'm by no means a fan of Nixon...but I loved 'Frost/Nixon', 'Dick', 'Black Dynamite'...and Im planning to see the Anthony Hopkins portrayal. I also loved the fact that Tika Sumter, the actress playing Michelle, essentially took this as a passion project.... much like Nate Parker did with 'Birth of a Nation'. So thanks again Alex. Im gonna go see it. And I hope people can just take it,, leave it, seat, don't see it...and not judge it.

Duane on Jan 25, 2016


Who wanted to see a first date of our latest president? What makes it a story worth telling? Its no more romantic than my first date with my wife, or any one elses. Its a shitty puff piece for a president who is so full of him self he may over flow. I could care less how good it is, I still question WHY it got made.

Higgens on Jan 25, 2016


Got it. So lemme respond. If you wanted to make a movie about how you met your wife.... I wouldn't stop you or question it. If you wrote it as a relatable love story...I'm sure you'd gain some fans. Every love story that was ever made gained some inspiration from somewhere. So Tika Sumpter was inspired by this particular story...and wanted to make a movie in the vein of 'Before Sunrise' that reflected her...and...I'm sure....a portion of film viewers that wanted to see a love story that they could see themselves in. Would it have been easier to relieve if it wasnt Obama related? Who knows. By stating that this president is full of've already chose to give the film a blind eye based on your feelings for the man. Do you my dude.... but there is an audience for this type of film and they should be able to support it regardless of political ideology. Thanks for answering btw. This is what forums like this are for.

Duane on Jan 25, 2016


I mean, it could be about 2 anybody's, Id never watch it, Romances are not my thing.

Higgens on Jan 25, 2016


in which case, your issue is with the genre. why make it? because there are films made of different genres to satisfy different fans. If romances aren't for you, that's fine. someone else will watch it gladly. but then if the issue for you is the genre, i'm struggling to understand why you're throwing shade on the film as a puff piece etc, and going on about your president and his character/political ideology

DarkMatter on Jan 26, 2016


No, its this movie. Some people like Romances, thats why they are made, why is THIS specific story of interest. Feels like ego stroking puff piece.

Higgens on Jan 26, 2016


this specific story is of interest because the people it's about are noteworthy - they are now POTUS and FLOTUS. That's interesting to me, and I'm not even from the US. movies like this are made all the time - some were noted above already. was "W" a puff piece? or "Frost/Nixon"? Without having seen the movie (unless you have seen it?) saying it's a puff piece seems premature and a bit prejudiced in my opinion.

DarkMatter on Jan 26, 2016


W was more than a story about Bushes first looked at his life. Frost Nixon was a movie about a VERY important interview. This is a movie about 2 nobody's(at the time) first date. They are not comparable.

Higgens on Jan 26, 2016


had they made the movie THEN, your point would be valid. the movie is being made in our time, when we know that the people represented on screen are now the present president and first lady. That adds a dimension of interest in this story, not to mention what Alex pointed out in making the favourable comparison with the Before series. I'm not saying this movie is of massive significance, but that it's got an interesting premise and is not unwarranted. I still don't see why it's a 'puff piece' though.

DarkMatter on Jan 26, 2016


Still doesnt answer the question. So fucking what they make a good couple, who wanted to see this story? Who cares.

Higgens on Jan 25, 2016


Sorry to say, it's a totally ridiculous question to ask. Because you can seriously ask this about ANY film and any story ever told on screen (especially most of the films playing Sundance), thus it's not really a real question.

Alex Billington on Jan 26, 2016



DAVIDPD on Jan 24, 2016


Barack and Michelle are a wonderful couple. Say what you will about their politics, and you will, they have conducted themselves and represented us with class, intellect, wit, and hipness. Yes, hipness is a word...

kitano0 on Jan 24, 2016


Not so bothered about it, but at least it's not another movie about the Kennedy's.

Carpola on Jan 26, 2016



Jameson on Jan 26, 2016

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