Here’s the date movie of the year. Southside With You is also about a date, a first date in the Chicago summer of 1989 between the then-unknown Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter). Both Sawyers and Sumpter are terrific, world-class charmers who suggest the powerhouses they’re playing without undue mimickry.
First-time writer-director Richard Tanne wisely avoids any political agenda to focus on two young lawyers starting out in life. The guarded, whip-smart Michelle is adamant about telling the flirtatious Barack, “This is not a date.” The man she initially calls “a smooth-talking brother” is a summer associate at her law firm; she agrees only to go with him to a meeting at a Southside church where black citizens are up in arms about a planned community center that has yet to be built. Barack suggests that before the meeting they see an exhibition of black painter Ernie Barnes at the Art Institute and maybe have a picnic lunch. She pays her share of the tab.
They walk, talk about their childhoods, and discuss issues of black identity. But the movie doesn’t preach, not even when Barack, who tries to hide his cigarette habit from Michelle, gives his speech to the community activists. Sawyers catches the signs of a great orator in the making. This is a movie, very much in the casual style of Richard Linkater’s “Before” trilogy, in which nothing and everything happens. We are watching two people sizing each other up, getting confrontational (Michelle suggests Barack knows very little about being black and female in a law firm), and deciding if they’re letting their ambitions sideline they’re goals to make a difference. After the meeting, they hit the multiplex to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a film that gets them arguing about violent and non-violent approaches to problem solving. They also go for ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins and outside the shop share their first kiss.
The scene, like the movie, is gorgeously romantic. Non-Democrats will probably cry foul and charge propaganda. (If we have to endure a first date movie between Trump and Melania in the name of equal time, so be it.) But Southside With You casts a magic spell by blending budding love with fierce intelligence. Drawing from the outline of a date that is now public record, Tanne imagines the details of Barack and Michelle’s conversation with subtlety and feeling. We are seeing major figures in the captivating act of becoming themselves.