How do great romances start? In most cases, especially in the days before the internet, there’s a meeting, a mutual attraction or interest, followed up by a first date. And that’s where we find Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Obama (Tika Sumpter) in the new film Southside With You.
Writer-director Richard Tanne’s imagination fills in the blanks of the Obamas' actual first date to offer a believable picture of what that initial outing might have been like for the professional colleagues who would, years later, become the first African-American president and first lady.
There is a visit to an art exhibit, a movie, ice cream and a bit of tension, and not just the kind caused by attraction. A young Barack tries to hide his smoking habit at first, and Michelle is adamant about maintaining the lines of professionalism. The conflict, a mandatory element of any rom-com worth the popcorn, only serves to make their final kiss goodnight that much sweeter.
Along the way, there are four notable elements that make Southside With You a film that sets itself apart from other romances:
Pay attention and there’s a lot of African-American culture to soak up in the movie, which features songs by Janet Jackson, Slick Rick, Al B. Sure and Soul II Soul as its backdrop. The couple also discusses artists like Gwendolyn Brooks and Ernie Barnes. There are also shoutouts to Spike Lee and Stevie Wonder.
Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers offer convincing depictions of the Obamas, especially when he takes his date to a community meeting and captivates his audience with that now-famous cadence. He has the forethought to invite her somewhere where he’s all but worshipped, and his friends’ admiration for him seems to rub off on Michelle, who’s equally impressed by his “knack for making speeches.” Catching little nods to the future 44th president, who was a mere law firm associate at the time, is a foreshadowing unique to this real-life love story.
Like any real-life marriage or relationship, things aren’t always rosy, and the film acknowledges that fact with some tension between the two strong-willed characters. Viewers will likely be able to relate to the missteps by Barack and Michelle as they try to assert and explain themselves while in the vulnerable arena of a first date, where you attempt to put your best foot forward.
While she’s obviously intrigued by Barack, Michelle is concerned about how she’ll be perceived by their colleagues if she dates the associate she was tasked to mentor. Barack opens up to his date about growing up without his father, while Michelle cares for hers, who’s battling multiple sclerosis. Issues of sexism, race and family make the characters relatable and serve to portray how these two future spouses connected on a deeper level.