“Southside With You” Review: Michelle and Barack’s First Date

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Eliana Schuster

Barack and Michelle Obama are perhaps the most well-known couple in the nation. Slightly less well-known, are Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, a summer associate at a law firm and his adviser. In Miramax Films’ “Southside With You” (2016), director and writer Richard Tanne portrays the story of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson’s first date. Having been asked to join him for a meeting, Robinson is surprised to discover that Obama had a whole afternoon planned out. As the two spend the afternoon out together in Chicago visiting an art museum, dancing, going out for drinks, seeing a movie, and eating ice cream, Robinson repeatedly insists that “this is not a date,” as she is concerned that dating an office intern would be viewed as inappropriate. It is unusual, but not unheard of, to write a movie following two people throughout a day. Given that “Southside With You” is a movie about the sitting first couple, however, Tanner’s approach stands out as bold.

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In “Southside With You,” Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers portray Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, repectively. Photo courtesy of miramax.com.

The most obvious path to be taken when portraying the beginning of the relationship between the President and First Lady would have been to write a short documentary, following their relationship from the moment that they met in the law firm to today. Instead of following this path, Tanner chose to write an account of the single afternoon that Robinson and Obama spent together during which they began to build a relationship. In his portrayal, Tanner does not attempt to reveal any startling secret that will change America’s perspective on its first couple, rather he provides insight into who Robinson and Obama were as individuals on the cusp of becoming a couple.

Throughout the day that Robinson and Obama spend together, there are certainly some low moments. Robinson becomes frustrated with Obama when he shares his unsolicited opinion about her career. At this point in the movie, as the two head to the community meeting, the tone becomes quite tense, and it appears that Obama has lost Robinson’s favor. He wins her back, however, by impressing her as he speaks at the community meeting. Again, the date takes a negative turn when the two run into Robinson’s boss from the law firm at the movie theater, having just seen the film “Do The Right Thing.” Upset because she thought her career had been ruined, Robinson told Obama that she should not have gone out with him, and that she was upset that he had threatened her career. Tanner creates a movie full of suspenseful moments like these and keeps the viewer wondering whether or not the date will end on a negative note. This is impressive, seeing as the viewer knows that, eventually, Robinson and Obama would end up together.

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Tanne portrays the first couple’s first date in “Southside With You.” Photo courtesy of chicagotribune.com.

There are a few points in the movie that seem a bit unrealistic and overdramatized. Throughout the date, Obama opens up to Robinson about the issues that he had with his late father, and while the two are at a bar, Robinson tells Obama that he should forgive his father. It seems unrealistic that such an emotional conversation would occur on a first date. Additionally, there is one point in the movie at which Robinson dances with children. The scene is excessively dramatized – the screen is blurred around her and she appears to have lost all of her inhibitions. The first half of the movie was spent focusing on her reserved personality, though, so this seems quite over-dramatic and unrealistic. Although, these two scenes are a bit over-the-top, they ultimately contribute the to movie’s tone, showing the complexity in the two characters and helping the viewer to understand how their relationship begins.
By telling the story of the single day on which Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama went on their first date, as opposed to telling the story of their evolution as a couple, Tanner creates a uniquely meaningful  account of the beginnings of the first couple’s relationship. By exploring who the first couple were as individuals as they began to form a relationship, Tanne creates a story that is deeper and more touching than a documentary would have been. On its own, “Southside With You” is an adorable story about a couple’s first date, but in the context in which it was created, it stands out as not only a meaningful account that will speak to America’s love of the Obamas, but also an example of effective filmmaking.