A young Jack Kennedy leads his shipwrecked crew to safety on a deserted island, dragging an injured sailor as he swims. A middle-aged FDR is struck down by polio, then fights to recover his ability to walk in order to step back onto the political stage. An up-and-coming Abraham Lincoln, new to the legal profession, stops a lynch mob from killing two young men suspected of murder, then successfully defends them in court. A young Barack Obama, interning at a corporate law firm, convinces his supervisor to go on a date. They kiss.
One of these things is not like the others.
The vast majority of presidential movies focus on presidents being presidents, sitting at the head of state, living arguably the most consequential moments of their lives. A man with the power and responsibility of the highest office in the country is instantly interesting, whether that’s JFK with the Cuban missile crisis, Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War, Nixon authorizing break-ins at the Watergate, or that famous speech President Bill Pullman gives toward the end of Independence Day. It’s easy for a president to get turned into a figure of high drama, a hero or villain of our national narrative.
But when a film dips into a president’s pre-presidential years, there’s more than just a good story going on. In fact, only a handful of presidential films have ignored a president’s years in the Oval Office entirely: PT-109 (the JFK war movie), Sunrise at Campobello (FDR’s recovery drama), Young Mr. Lincoln (on Lincoln’s… yes, younger years), and now Southside With You, the new movie about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in Chicago in 1991.
Iwan Morgan, editor of Presidents in the Movies and professor of U.S. Studies and American History at University College London, explained over email that both JFK’s and FDR’s early biopics “deal with pre-presidential triumph over adversity to emphasize their suitability to lead in office, rather than celebrating their leadership in office.” Morgan added that John Ford, director of Young Mr. Lincoln, “focuses on the pre-heroic Lincoln to explore his formative influences and preparation for greatness.” The whole point of making a presidential prequel is to show the pattern of the POTUS-to-be.
So what does Southside with You show us? The film follows the Obamas through a fictionalized version of their famous first date, whose end is already memorialized by a plaque in front of a Hyde Park Baskin-Robbins — inscribed with this quote from a 2007 O, The Oprah Magazine interview with Barack: “On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.”
However sweet the ending, the day didn’t begin as a date, at least in Southside’s telling. Barack is a broke summer associate at a corporate law firm; Michelle, his supervisor. He knows she thinks dating within the office is a bad look (and it is), so he asks her out to a community activist meeting at the Gardens — a housing project on Chicago’s South Side — and he fudges the timing a little so they’ll have an opportunity to hang beforehand. They take a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, where Barack recites the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool” from memory in front of an Ernie Barnes painting, then meander around a public park, trading political opinions and biographical details.
Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) mostly speak in expository monologues; their back-and-forth has all the zip and timing of an exchange between animatronics in the Hall of Presidents. It’s less like Before Sunset, the movie’s obvious walk-and-talk precedent, and more like an extended video-game cut scene — even something about the cinematography feels expectant, like something is always about to happen, but never does.
The future POTUS and FLOTUS head to a bar, where Michelle finally agrees to call their day together a “date,” and then they go see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (another movie that takes place in one day, though the similarities end right about there). Walking out, the couple runs into a higher-up from the law firm and his wife.
This presents a double danger: First, Michelle’s main reason for not wanting to date within the office (and especially not wanting to date the only other black person in the office) was to avoid office gossip, and the undermining that comes with being anything less than professional; second, they ask the young black couple if they could explain the famous final scene of Do The Right Thing, in which the main character, Mookie (played by Spike Lee), throws a trash can through the window of the pizzeria where he works.
Mookie threw the trash can to save the life of the pizzeria owner and divert the crowd’s anger toward the restaurant itself, Barack explains, clearly catering to the older white couple. But once they walk away, he assures Michelle that he was just playing to his audience—Mookie threw the trash can because he was angry. Then: the ice cream, and the kiss.
Within the context of the rom-com, this makes for sweet (if somewhat boring) viewing. A first date is all about potential, but we know how this particular love story ends. The Obamas are paragons of the modern married couple; Barack’s promise as a potential partner paid off. But, as Manohla Dargis pointed out in her review in The New York Times, it’s clear throughout Southside that Michelle is meant to be a stand-in for the audience, for the Obama voter, for the nation at large — Barack didn’t just want Michelle, he wanted you.
So what about his promise as a president? Besides getting Michelle to go on a date with him in the first place, two moments where young Barack seemingly takes action are at the meeting in the Gardens and, belatedly, after Do the Right Thing. In the first, he gives a speech about not being discouraged by a fractious and adversarial political system, counseling patience. In the second, he gives a palatable answer to an older, conservative white audience, saving his real charm (and real insight) for Michelle. Now that’s politics.
Perhaps this would all be more touching if we knew that these tactics had made for a rip-roaring two terms as president. Instead, and in spite of itself, this plays right to the most persistent criticisms of the Obama presidency, and to the greatest fears of his supporters: that Obama never moved beyond his perceived potential from the 2008 election, and was never able to deliver much more than a solid speech.
Dargis called the film a “cinematic hagiography” in the Times, but to borrow another Christian term of art, it’s closer to a piece of apologetics. Instead of a miracle story of a hero’s precocious powers, it presents an argument against his critics, a character study by way of excuse. In Southside, the young Obama doesn’t demonstrate his future leadership ability as much as his ability to convince you of his future leadership ability. Which is, ironically, what many of his strongest critics say about his presidency. That it was — and remained, throughout his eight years in office — about possibility.
Southside tells us that, if it wasn’t for the system, Obama could have accomplished more, and despite it all, did an admirable job of keeping his head up. It urges us to believe what we already know: that he’s a cool guy in private, even if he keeps calling for drone strikes and deporting more people — that’s just playing to the white couple at the movie theater, the conservative crowd. It argues, ice cream cone in hand, that Obama would have made a truly great president, if he had just been given the chance.
Sam Dean is a staff writer at MEL.
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