The adorable tale of how Barack and Michelle Obama fell in love over a Spike Lee movie and ice cream is already the stuff of White House legend, but at Sundance audiences got a glimpse of a younger, sexier, F-bomb-dropping version of the 44th president of the United States.
Barack and Michelle’s Before Sunrise-esque first date makes for the entirety of the charming indie romance Southside With You, the crowd-pleasing, unofficial version of how America’s first black president’s Camelot unfolded in Chicago in the summer of 1989 when one epic date brought the future POTUS and FLOTUS together.
We first meet Michelle Robinson (producer-star Tika Sumpter) in a white pencil skirt and bra as she gets dressed for what she swears to her doting parents is absolutely, definitely not a date with the handsome young summer associate who’s her junior at work.
“You said he was another smooth-talking brother,” her mother teases. “Barack O-what?” her father shouts.
Meanwhile, Barack (breakout newcomer Parker Sawyers) gets the swaggiest screen intro the White House biopic genre is likely to ever see. Nonchalantly reclining in a tank top in the summer heat, he lights up a cigarette like a young Brando. His bachelor pad is a mess, the sink filled with dirty dishes, but Barack would rather prepare for his big date by reading a book.
Director Richard Tanne sets a playful tone for the opposites-attract dynamic between the couple. Hopping in his beat-up car, the future president of the United States drives through the streets of Chicago’s South Side bumping Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much,” tapping his fingers along to the beat as the opening titles splash onscreen in a pink scrawl.
She’s reluctant to date him, aware that being romantically linked to an underling at work will only make her achievements as a black woman harder. But he’s charming, persistent, and cute. They bicker and banter, and over the course of the afternoon their meandering non-date-date takes them from an exhibit of Afrocentric paintings to sandwiches in the park, to a church meeting of community organizers where Michelle is dazzled by Barack’s ability to inspire.
Hearing an ad for Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing on the radio—“they say it’s racist against white people,” a curious Obama notes—they eventually end up at the movies where a chance encounter with a white partner at their firm underscores the complexities of being black and ambitious in a predominantly white world.
Southside With You loses its crackling momentum at times as Tanne injects his walking and talking scenes with Important Dialogue and verges on preachiness in what would otherwise be a perfectly adorable first-blush romance. Rather than dive into partisan commentary or Barack’s political beliefs, it emphasizes Barack the promising former community organizer, his latent exceptionalism, frustrations with growing up half-black, and resentment for the absent father about whom he would later pen a book.
“It’s just a love story—it’s not Republican or Democrat,” Sumpter said at Sundance, drawing cheers from the audience. As Hollywood scrambles around the hot-button issue of this year’s #OscarsSoWhite, the actress and producer also illuminated the significance of a film like this featuring African-American subjects and stars: “I wanted to see somebody who looked like me falling in love up there.”
The characters of Southside With You and the filmmakers navigate and discuss race in America not just in macro terms, but also in personal terms as the film emphasizes Obama’s multicultural origins and his history of dating white women. “Her skin is of the darker persuasion,” he assures his grandmother over the phone. Later, over beers with Michelle, he explains that a two-year relationship with a white girlfriend made him realize he didn’t want to feel like an “outsider.”
The real Obamas were reportedly flabbergasted to learn that anyone would want to make a movie about their epic first date. Director Tanne admitted that the film is only “90 percent” accurate, culled from public records and interviews the first couple have given detailing the beginnings of their romance.
The crowd at the film’s Sundance premiere went nuts for the film and its winning leads, captivated in particular by Obama look-alike Parker Sawyers. Some, however, questioned whether not knowing exactly how the first date went down diminished its impact. That artistic license, however, lends Southside With You the freedom to weave in bigger themes of race, class, and how individuals can effect change in America.
It also allows Tanne to depict a rarely seen sensual side of President Obama: confident, relaxed, relentlessly flirty, and given to shooting hungry glances at his future wife. History officially knows their first date ended over ice cream, which here acts as a conciliatory peace offering that ends Michelle and Barack’s first lovers’ quarrel.
That infamous ice cream cone—chocolate, Michelle’s favorite—also leads to a true Sundance surprise: A first kiss so hot it made theatergoers at Sundance melt in the aisles.