sundance 2016

Sundance: As the Obamas Fall in Love, So Will You

Photo: Matt Dinerstein

There are cat lovers, and there are dog lovers. Some people drink Coke, and others, for some unaccountable reason, prefer Pepsi. And then we’ve got the male lead of today’s Sundance film Southside With You, who presents the woman he’s wooing with a piece of pie, despite the fact that she’s an ice-cream kind of girl. She asks him how can he possibly be Team Pie in a world where chocolate ice cream exists, and he replies with a regretful smile, “A summer of working at Baskin-Robbins will do that to you.” Can this pie guy and our ice-cream lady make it work, despite what might seem like irreconcilable differences on their very first date?

Given that the man is a young Barack Obama, and the woman is his eventual wife Michelle Robinson, you’d have to give this coupling pretty good odds, dessert be damned. And that knowledge of what comes next is one of the primary delights of Southside With You, the charming feature debut from Richard Tanne that chronicles the very first romantic day between the future First Couple (played by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter). On any promising first date, it’s tempting to project a lifetime of possibility onto a scant few hours: If this goes well, could I see myself making a life with this person? Given where both Barack and Michelle’s lives end up, the audience can’t help but share in their tentative optimism, too.

Then again, when we meet Michelle — who is smartly positioned as the film’s primary point-of-view character — she’s not expecting much from her afternoon with Barack, and she certainly wouldn’t call it a date. They both labor at Chicago’s Sidley Austin law firm, where Michelle is Barack’s mentor and so by-the-book that she wouldn’t dream of indulging this new associate’s romantic interest in her. She reluctantly agrees to attend a community organizers’ meeting with Barack, but when he arrives at her house in his beat-up car, she eyes the dirty floor, where a gaping hole provides a view of the asphalt below, then warily scans Barack, who still stinks of cigarette smoke. Her initial read of the 44th president? Not so promising.

Still, Barack manages to convince Michelle to go to an art gallery with him, and as the two roam the space, they make a cute couple: She in the smart peach blouse, he dressed like a khaki-clad character from Spotlight yet still retaining an ineffable cool. As the day continues, they probe each others’ now well-known backstories, each trying to outdo the other with intellectual precision, and both barely able to mask their smiles when the other person scores a point. By the end of their modest little odyssey, they’ve fought and flirted their way through that community meeting, held hands during a screening of Do the Right Thing, and shared an ice-cream cone that results in this young cinematic year’s most swoon-worthy first kiss. Yes, Barack initially resisted joining Team Ice Cream — just as Michelle initially resisted him — but like any budding politician or future husband, he knows that sometimes you have to compromise to get what you want.

Fortunately, Tanne didn’t have to compromise at all with his two charismatic leads: Not only are they dead ringers for Barack and Michelle, but they go beyond impression to deliver something real and human-sized. Sumpter, in particular, is the standout, capturing Michelle’s rigid sureness in herself: She’s had to wall off parts of her identity in order to realize her ambitions, but whenever Michelle lets her guard slip ever so slightly with Barack, there’s nothing more satisfying.

It’s important, too, to have such a romantic depiction of black love on the big screen. As this awards season has proven, Hollywood has done a poor job of generating roles for actors of color, and women of color have really borne the brunt of that, excluded from major magazine covers, roundtables, and most studio movies. Sumpter is first-billed in Southside With You, which is an unfortunate rarity: I’ve been looking over the big studios’ 2016 slates, and out of over 120 movies, only one is led by an actress of color. (That would be Disney’s Queen of Katwe, where Lupita Nyong’o is first-billed.) You can understand, then, why Sumpter was overcome watching her film today; she offered to produce the movie even if Tanne didn’t cast her, so determined was she to have it realized. “Ultimately, I wanted to see someone who looked like me falling in love up there,” Sumpter said, visibly moved. As the audience cheered, she added, “I think everybody can relate to that.”

As the Obamas Fall in Love, So Will You