Just as there’s a bizarro internet where Donald Trump is celebrated as a warm, loving, generous, successful businessman who really wants to earn a Purple Heart, I wonder if there's also a bizarro, ravenous audience awaiting a feature-film re-enactment of Donald and Melania’s epic first date. (He literally tricked his girlfriend at the time into waiting in the bathroom while he hit on Melania.) No bother. Liberals get a romance for the ages in Michelle and Barack Obama with Richard Tanne’s directorial debut, Southside With You, which recounts the First Couple’s first date in the manner of a Before Sunset that's been cleaned up and sent to Sunday school for some manners.
Writer-director Tanne has done his research. The first-date divulgences rolling off of Michelle's (Tika Sumpter) and Barack’s (Parker Sawyers) tongues seem unusually detailed — do people really reveal all their secrets within 30 minutes? — but this isn’t any normal couple. Barack takes Michelle to a community organizing event so she can hear him give a speech wherein he tells the beleaguered crowd that they need to get past thinking that “‘no’ is the end of the line.” It’s an interesting, canny rhetorical gambit, and not just political, because Barack spends many minutes leading up to that scene crossing Michelle’s boundaries with some no-means-yes skeezing he mistakes for charm. As uncomfortable as those scenes are, they’re also setting up a central tension — Michelle can teach Barry about rules and respect, and Barry can give Michelle a taste of life without limits.
Sawyers seems to have absconded with one of the real Obama’s discarded cigarette butts and sucked in his Marlboro Red essence, while Sumpter gives a solid but overshadowed performance as the more rigid Michelle — she at first offers a one-dimensional reading of the dutiful, rule-abiding lawyer. But as Michelle is able to break out of being straitlaced and pushes back against her date’s more arrogant tendencies, Sumpter embodies her character with greater ease.
Still, both actors occasionally hit stumbling blocks with the wordy script and Tanne’s direction, neither of which allow quite enough room for the characters to think and feel onscreen. The main cast and few supporting players often come off as stylized versions of reality, such as the community activists present for Barack’s speech who present curiously impeccable dictions of purposely broken grammar. (There’s a larger and more meta conversation about “code switching” here that someone should certainly ask Tanne about.) An exception to the stylized reality is a community organizer played by Jerod Haynes, who’s natural and fluid in his few minutes onscreen, signifying that he likely will get a bigger role next time out.
Set in the 1980s, the film features production design that never feels as if it’s screaming for its authenticity as the couple strolls through Chicago's south and west sides. Little details in the furniture, costuming and Barack’s rusted-out Nissan Sentra convey the period, and whoever chose Janet Jackson’s breezy “Miss You Much” for Barry to cruise to deserves a gold star; dust off your old Rhythm Nation tape to remember, because it’s the perfect tone for this film: fun, sweet and a little magic.
Yes, the whole premise is a little hokey, and if you’re convinced Obama is a Muslim terrorist who founded ISIS, you’ll probably get caught up on the less politically cautious admissions that the character of Barack smokes weed and is religiously undecided. (It was true of the real guy, but we don’t like to talk about that.) It’s impossible to divorce the characters on the screen from their real-life counterparts. And while this can hurt other biopic filmmakers if, for instance, their subjects are more morally ambiguous and the director feels the burden of portraying them positively, Tanne’s subjects are a boon to the script. They afford him some leeway in how cheesy he can get, because the real Obamas have already shown the world that romance knows no limits.