It feels almost too good to be true that America’s first non-white president took his future wife to see Spike Lee’s provocative race-relations drama “Do the Right Thing” on their first date … yet it happened. Barack Obama’s years in the White House, particularly in regard to questions of racial identity, often seem to tie into that film – who does the right thing? And for whom?
But when extrapolating the lessons from Barack and Michelle Obama’s first romantic outing and applying them to the presidency, where do you stop drawing the line? Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You,” a gentle and conversational recounting of that fateful day, seems to suggest that virtually every detail can serve as a foreshadowing one.
From their first conversation, Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) come across as two strong-willed people who can deftly navigate through verbal volleying until they can find a hole through which to push their point of view. The two are united in their passion for helping issues that hit close to home for black Americans but get frustrated with having to achieve those ends through a white-dominated system that implicitly treats them as second class citizens. Michelle in particular articulates her double consciousness of being a person of color as well as a woman and how it affects every move she makes – including only the most tentative embraces of Barack.
At times, though, the parallels come across as a little too stretched. At about the midpoint of “Southside With You,” Barack gives an off-the-cuff address to a community meeting. He rattles off brilliant, poetic lines about turning self-interest into mutual interest. Few can deny the power of his rhetorical prowess, but this oration has the prepared exactitude of a speech delivered to the DNC, not the front row of a half-empty church. And is it really so fortuitous that the presentation contains many of the major themes that propelled him to the presidency? (It could be, just so we’re clear.)
The film ends on an entirely appropriate note: the two seem locked not primarily in romantic bliss but rather somber anticipation of the tough road ahead. There is absolutely love, but there is also a partnership, a meeting of the minds. A pairing of two like minded, change-oriented fighters determined to make a difference together. Perhaps the real first date of “Southside With You” is that of Barack and Michelle Obama with destiny. B /