• Festivals

Southside With You: Obama’s Sundance Legacy

Mere days before the political primaries begin, which will eventually lead to selecting his successor, Barack Obama is all the buzz in Park City after the festival screening of Southside with You, screenwriter/director Richard Tanne’s debut film which recounts a very special day in the lives of the people we now refer to as the First Couple.

Tanne’s film details the Obamas’ first date – although Michelle (Tika Sumpter) may (and does) have something to say about that characterization in the film! On that summer day in 1989 Chicago Harvard law student Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) in his late twenties is spending the summer back in Chicago interning at a prestigious law firm where his advisor is fellow Harvard alumna Michelle Robinson. On the fateful day the self-assured idealist and scholar finally decides to ask her out even though she is adamant about the impropriety that might be perceived if the two co-workers were to date. So Barack asks Michelle to join him at a community-organizing meeting at a Southside project. The ruse works and the rest as they say is history – or at least will be after this day is over.

Drawing on the fine performances from his actors, who are recognizable incarnations – but never impersonations – of their subjects, Tanne uses a light and lighthearted touch to paint the picture of what may rank as the most articulate date in history. It is the portrait of two young and inherently moral people on the cusp of adulthood, which will bring them to places they clearly can scarcely imagine. They are passionate, intelligent and articulate – and clearly succumbing to their feelings in a film that is accurate (Tanne told the Eccles audience he verified the locales, the items on the menu and even the location of the first kiss) but at the same time unabashed in taking poetic license in the service of sweet romance. Tanne also said that the “White House” is “aware and slightly puzzled” by the existence of the film.

With or without the tacit approval, this is a sweet film that steers clear of any hagiographical temptations (although it clearly has nothing but affection for its subjects). It probably won’t be screened at the presidential library, but in a way it's the first stepping-stone to the Obama legacy – and it now includes a love story on film.

(Read our interview with director Richard Tanne)