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When Barack Met Michelle: 'Southside With You' Recreates The Obamas' First Date


This is FRESH AIR. Barack and Michelle Obama's first date in Chicago back in 1989 is the subject of a new movie called "Southside With You." Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Southside With You" is a dramatization of Barack and Michelle Obama's first date in 1989, which Obama wrote about briefly in his second book and has already become a piece of American folklore. He just finished his first year at Harvard Law School and was a summer associate at a Chicago corporate law firm. Michelle Robinson was a second-year associate, a practicing attorney and his advisor. He says she was reluctant to go on an official date with him. But he asked her out so much, he wore her down. It's weird to see a biopic where the subjects aren't just still alive but still in the White House, where everything they say and do is freighted with politics. "Southside With You" plays as if the young writer-director, Richard Tanne, felt compelled to parse every word his characters say, which means they don't cut loose the way they do in fictional date movies, like Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight." But the movie's mix of romance and politics - both African-American and feminist politics - has a naive kind of charm. Even when it's stilted, it's charming. The dramatic hook is that Barack and Michelle are from very different worlds. He'd spent much of his childhood with his white grandparents in Hawaii, while she was from a tight, working-class, South Side black family. So what does he propose for a first date? They go to an Afrocentric art exhibit, a meeting in a local church where he'd spent time as a community organizer, and Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing." - quite a slate. I was shocked that Tanne lets us see what a heavy smoker Obama was. He lights up in the first and last scenes and in nearly every scene in between. The actor, Parker Sawyers, makes that smoking a character point. It's how his Barack steadies himself, chills himself out. Sawyers makes sense of Obama's odd rhythms - the way he blurts and then halts, stopping time to measure every other phrase. He makes temperateness and logic sexy. Or at least he tries to, while Tika Sumpter's Michelle does everything she can to hold him at bay. Sumpter seems arch in some of her early scenes. But she gives the movie its fiercely honest center. We see Obama through her appraising eyes.


TIKA SUMPTER: (As Michelle) Shouldn't we be getting to the meeting?

PARKER SAWYERS: (As Barack) We got some time. It's not for another few hours.

SUMPTER: (As Michelle) What?

SAWYERS: (As Barack) I thought we'd swing by the art center. There's an Afrocentric exhibit that's supposed to be...

SUMPTER: (As Michelle) Wait. What is this?

SAWYERS: (As Barack) What is this? I don't know. I mean, taken at face value, that's a pretty existential question, Michelle.

SUMPTER: (As Michelle) What happened to the meeting?

SAWYERS: (As Barack) It doesn't start until 4. So I thought we'd see some paintings, maybe grab a bite to eat. We don't have to.

SUMPTER: (As Michelle) Barack, you seem like a really sweet guy. But how many times do I have to tell you? We're not going out together.

SAWYERS: (As Barack) Well, Michelle, thank you for saying that. You seem like a real sweet girl. But I have to correct you. We are, in fact, out. And we are, in fact, together.

SUMPTER: (As Michelle) But not on a date. This is not a date.

SAWYERS: (As Barack) It doesn't have to be.

SUMPTER: (As Michelle) Barack, I don't want it to be.

SAWYERS: (As Barack) You know, usually, women I meet are willing to look past my hideous appearance and get to know the real me.

SUMPTER: (As Michelle) If I thought you were hideous, I wouldn't have set you up with Gina. Gina's very attractive.

SAWYERS: (As Barack) Now, that's true. Gina is very attractive.

SUMPTER: (As Michelle) This is not a date.

EDELSTEIN: What director Richard Tanne dances around is the notion that this intensely African-American date is Barack's attempt to prove to Michelle that he's not some white-bred, Harvard-educated corporate-lawyer type - that his identity and his future rests with the black side of his heritage and that pursuing her after a life of dating mostly white women is a sign of where his heart is. The central sequence in the community center is a funny mix of satire and campaign commercial. As the older women crowd around Michelle and tell her how great Barack is and, in one case, how he mentored and inspired a woman's young son to escape the violent streets, we're supposed to laugh with Michelle at what a setup it is to win her over but also fall in love with Barack's political gifts. OK, the movie says. He's too smooth by half. But he's on the side of the angels. The last part of "Southside With You" is a botched opportunity. Barack and Michelle are blown away by "Do The Right Thing." But then there's a terrible scene where they bump into a senior partner at the firm and Barack eases the clueless white man's discomfort over the climactic riot with a bit of flimflam. What we don't see is Barack and Michelle engage with the debate Spike Lee establishes between the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King, a side we've seen Barack take in that community meeting, and the angry militancy of Malcolm X, which Lee endorses. I'd like to have heard some of that discussion before they kiss. Is that a spoiler - that they kiss? For all its clunks and wobbles, something comes through vividly in "Southside With You." These two kids have terrific chemistry.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's FRESH AIR, we begin our end-of-summer favorite interview series with Tom Hanks. He's played a lot of courageous men in films like "Captain Phillips," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Apollo 13." But he says he doesn't think he has their kind of bravery.

TOM HANKS: When I have to, I try to unleash some sort of inner charm monster in order to get out of any uncomfortable circumstance.


DAVIES: Hope you can join us then. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Terry Gross returns on Monday. I'm Dave Davies.


DAVIES: We end today's show with a nod to the iconic audio engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who recorded many of the most significant albums in the history of jazz. Van Gelder's studio recording techniques, balancing the sound of horns, piano, bass and drums, helped shape the sound of the Blue Note, Impulse! and Prestige labels in sessions with Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis and many others. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2009. Van Gelder died yesterday at his home, which was also where his studio was located. He was 91. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.