I remember reading in People magazine that Michelle and Barack Obama watched Do the Right Thing on their first date, followed by a walk around Lake Michigan. While that's not incorrect, this film argues their first date was much more, and as thick with socio-racial-economic awareness as any Spike Lee joint.
Framing the story of the first couple's first date around commonly known facts, writer-director Richard Tanne shows the young lawyers discussing workplace dynamics, white ex-girlfriends and daddy issues. Tanne focuses on showing who they are, not telling us through wordy dialogue. By filling in the blanks with the political landscape, the scope of this one date night broadens to capture the spirit of Chicago in the summer of 1989.
The film opens with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) getting ready for the date. Her mother asks why she is getting dolled up for some "smooth talker." This Michelle still lives at home, caring for a father with multiple sclerosis. If that doesn't fully reset the audience's expectations of presidential life, the first shot of said smooth talker shows a 28-year-old Barack (Parker Sawyers) savoring a hearty drag off a cigarette. Despite his beater car, Sawyers' loose, confident gait epitomizes the coolest Barack you can imagine.
Forget lingering eye contact, Tanne shows the pair's compatability in the way they both charge straight for the elephant in the room. Barack is upfront about romantic intentions, and Michelle points out early on that there are major consequences for her career if she goes out with the first cute black associate who walks through the law firm's door. "So you think I'm cute?" Barack responds.
We don't know if they really viewed paintings by Ernie Barnes together, or if Barack actually made a blue joke about riots after watching Do the Right Thing. But the film's reserved take on their first kiss is free of any harp crescendoes or fireworks, and that feels close to the truth. There is a heaviness grounding that moment between them; an understanding that whatever comes after the kiss will be laden with pressures and compromise.
Critic's Grade: B+
See IT: Southside With You is rated PG-13. It opens Friday, Aug. 26.