The representation of US presidents on film has had a patchy history, recently. Oliver Stone put George W Bush on screen in W, and Tricky Dicky is almost a rite-of-passage for male American character actors, like Richard III for Shakespearian Brits: there have been scowly-jowly turns from Frank Langella, Kevin Spacey and John Cusack. Throughout the 1990s, though, we saw a different phenomenon – the quasi-Clinton fictional president, a mature yet credibly foxy C-in-C inspired by Bill, like Michael Douglas in The American President, Bill Pullman in Independence Day, Harrison Ford in Air Force One and more.
Until now, there’s been nothing inspired by Barack Obama. Wondering why that is means wondering if the white elephant is still taking up too much space in Hollywood’s theoretically capacious living room: Obama did not actually appear in Lee Daniels’s The Butler, inspired by the White House’s African-American butler Eugene Allen, who retired before Barack’s arrival. But now writer-director Richard Tanne has addressed this with a gently likable, Linklaterish movie that ideologically conflates romantic excitement with progressive idealism, bringing in some unexpected subtleties.
It’s all about Barack and Michelle’s first date in the summer of 1989, when the future president met his (do I mean “her”?) future spouse in Chicago. This date took in an art gallery, sandwiches in the park, a political meeting and a trip to the movies – culminating in the legendary first kiss on a bench outside the Baskin-Robbins ice cream store, now commemorated by a plaque.
Parker Sawyers is an eerily close likeness for the lanky, conceited, cigarette-smoking young Barack, a Harvard law student doing a summer associate programme at the prestigious a Chicago firm where he is mentored by beautiful, smart Michelle, played with charm and self-possession by Tika Sumpter.
Tanne has taken the accepted version of events and imagined the dialogue, ingeniously crafting a traditional romance within a walking-pace, real-time narrative, complete with meet-cute, breakup and makeup. Michelle is unimpressed by Barack’s swagger, disconcerted by the hole in the floor of his old car – and not exactly enamoured by the cigarettes he is smoking, though doesn’t mention it.
They talk about Michelle’s hard-working idealistic parents, about Barack’s troubled background and his drunk dad. Tanne imagines a later scene in a bar where she challenges him directly on not facing up to his emotions. They talk about their ambitions and Barack irritates her with a misjudged, patronising homily about how she’s obviously not fulfilled at work. One subject they do not discuss is whether a woman should give up her career to be a wife and mom.
If these people were fictional characters, they would almost certainly have an encounter with white racists, from which they would emerge shaken but determined, and brought closer together by the trauma. Not here. But on this point, Southside With You becomes interestingly, almost meta-textually sophisticated. Barack and Michelle do indeed encounter racism – on the movie screen. He takes her to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (again, this really happened, encouraged by a rave review from celebrated Chicago critic Roger Ebert), where they watch the brutality of bigoted cops. Then out in the lobby, while Barack is in the men’s room, Michelle is quietly mortified to run into her (white) bosses, who she fears will think the less of her professional credentials, in apparently going on some simpering date with a co-worker.
When Barack returns, a tense four-way conversation begins, and Barack smoothly finesses this boss’s objection to the violence that concludes the film, suggesting that it was a safety valve and that the aggressor would have anticipated the existence of an “insurance policy” to minimise damage. That cleverly imagined scene puts on show Obama’s political acumen, diplomacy and instinct for negotiating with the white world. And it demonstrates all the nuances of race, class, gender politics and professional prestige far more interestingly and effectively than the usual “racism” moment.
Did it all happen just like that? Well, of course not. It is all a bit too good to be true and there are times when Southside With You has a TV movie feel. Tanne’s dramatic licence means bringing in years of conversation and hindsight and compressing them into a few hours – but interestingly, perhaps it is closer to the truth than first appears. Michelle and Barack wouldn’t be the first couple who revealed most about themselves on the first date, before coupledom and marriage made them invisible to each other.