Southside with You **

The story of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date meanders and never feels honest.

Is it worth $10? No

The tagline of “Southside with You” is inherently appealing, as it promises a candid look at Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in the summer of 1989. What it actually delivers, however, is a love letter to the current First Couple, one that depicts them with copious positivity and uses negative topics, such as Barack’s negligent father, as sources of inspiration to make a difference. I’m not a betting man, but I’m willing to bet writer/director Richard Tanne is a Democrat.

Bias aside, the reality is almost the entire movie is fraudulent. Tanne researched the story by reading accounts given by the First Couple about their first date, but this only means the locations are accurate, not the conversation. The fictionalized discussion would be more tolerable if the dialog was interesting and about more than personal biographies and life philosophies, but it is not. Combined with low-budget production values and standard editing, the whole thing plays like a made-for-TV movie.

They spend an entire afternoon and evening together, though Michelle (Tika Sumpter) insists it isn’t a date. She’s Barack’s (Parker Sawyers) advisor at their law firm, and with her establishing professional credibility and him on loan from Harvard Law School for the summer, she’s worried about how it’ll look. But he’s a smooth-talker and undeterred, and as they venture from an art museum to walking in a park to seeing Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” she gradually warms to him.

Their conversation is uncannily personal (her father’s MS) and revelatory (he’s  dated white women), much more than one would expect on a typical first date. She says she wants to help women and empower them. He says he feels a bigger calling in civil rights or, maybe, politics. Tanne isn’t overtly foreshadowing the lives they are about to lead, but it’s obviously where the viewer’s mind is going to go and therefore seems intentional on Tanne’s part.

And then there are moments that don’t belong in the movie at all. A good 15 minutes (of the 84 minute run time) is set at a proposal for a community center meeting in which Barack doesn’t even sit next to Michelle. She’s told by nosey women what a great guy he is as he shakes hands with everyone. The leader of the event is given harsh feedback from locals who don’t feel like the community center will ever be approved. Good thing Barack is there to appease the masses.

The thing is, this has little to do with their date and clearly wouldn’t be in the movie if it didn’t feature the current President of the United States as a younger man swaying an uneasy crowd to his side. It’s lazy for Tanne to have a scene that feels this overwritten and tedious in a movie that’s supposed to be about a budding love story, not a budding political career. Worse – and more unforgiveable – is that (per the press notes) this meeting wasn’t held on their first date, and therefore isn’t authentic to the story.

It is impossible to watch “Southside with You” without thinking about Barack and Michelle Obama today, which means every line of dialog adds insight and perspective into the couple currently running the United States of America. The problem is we have no idea if any of the dialog is genuine, and with a movie like this, that matters. Your curiosity about the First Couple may be enough to inspire you to see it, but knowing that it lacks the substance it needs makes that a zero sum game.

Did you know?
The movie was shot in 15 days at or near many of the actual locations of the first date.

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