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A sweet, smart take on the First Couple
GIVEN the surreal nature surrounding the ongoing reality show known as the US presidential elections, Southside With You arrives in cinemas at a particularly timely moment. There's nothing especially remarkable about a film that chronicles the first date for a young couple in Chicago in the summer of 1989 - except that the two people in question happen to be the future President of the United States and Michelle Obama.
The film, written and directed by Richard Tanne, is a sweet, smart and satisfying discourse on how the First Couple interacted during that fateful day - one that was so routine and uneventful that we can only shudder at the thought of what a future movie about the dating habits of say, a certain Republican presidential candidate, might look like.
Southside With You is about a man who becomes the most powerful politician in the world (and the woman who becomes his wife), but it avoids being overtly political itself - which is a good thing. We are accorded a few glimpses of individual attributes that will resurface two decades hence but for the most part, the film might just as well be called A Day in the Life.
In 1989, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) was a Harvard Law School student and summer associate at the Chicago law firm where fellow Harvard alum and junior associate Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) worked. She was totally career-oriented and took a "strictly business" approach when she was assigned to mentor him. He, on the other hand, had a deeper personal interest in her.
The film recreates in some detail the day he invites her for lunch - an occasion, she constantly reminds him, that is most definitely not a date. Their differences in personality are played up to maximum effect - so much the better for the "opposites-attract" theory to take root as the narrative progresses.
She dresses neatly, is meticulous in everything she does and more than a little wary of his intentions. Meanwhile, he drives a beat-up Datsun, smokes heavily and has a casual, laid-back demeanour - cultivated by spending his formative years in the Hawaiian Islands. He readily admits to smoking dope in high school. They visit a museum, have lunch in a park (she insists on paying for her own sandwich), talk about art, music, religion and basketball and have a deeper discussion about race relations and the African-American identity.
Later, when he addresses the crowd at a church meeting about stalled plans for a community centre, she's impressed by his eloquence and ability to motivate people. "You definitely have a knack for making speeches," she says. They watch Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and share an ice cream. They also share a mutual admiration - and recognise the growing fondness between them. When Barack muses on his father's wasted opportunities, Michelle replies: "Every father's life is incomplete - that's why they have sons to finish matters."
Despite the less-than-suspenseful storyline (they would marry in 1992), Southside With You shows a genuine warmth towards its characters while also providing insight into how they developed into the foremost power couple on the planet: it all started on a non-date between a hard-working, slightly uptight young woman and an ambitious, sensible, "smooth-talking brother". By the end of the day she's sold - and so are we.