Apparently, even the Obamas are somewhat dismayed that the story of about their first date has been made into a feature-length film.
During a Q&A at the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Richard Tanne was asked if the Obamas know about the movie. “We've heard from some pretty reliable sources that they are aware,” he answered. “They are excited. And they are also a little baffled by its existence.”
It is somewhat baffling, but understandable to a degree. Barack Obama is this country’s first Black president. His wife, Michelle Obama, is revered by communities of all backgrounds, but even more strongly in the Black community (and rightly so). Even so, I was a bit weary about seeing their lives depicted in film so soon much less as a romantic comedy. Weary because it still feels so soon to be looking back at history as it continues to take place. Curious how people who haven’t even left the White House to start their post-White House lives are already being mythologized.
Then again, we now live in a time where everything feels instantaneous. No one waits anymore. Not even The Obamas can escape that.
So here we are. Whatever fears the Obamas had about the film, they needn’t worry. Tanne’s depiction of both will more than likely appease them. Southside With You reminds me of one of President Obama’s infamous hope-filled speeches. It’s intentionally aspirational while making sure not to go too far in an effort not to come across as schmaltzy, and thus, completely unbelieveable. Sumpter as well as singer-songwriter and rising entertainment power player John Legend serve as producers for the movie. They’ve all assisted Tanne in giving our commander-in-chief and First Lady what amounts to a cute date movie centered on their personal lives.
Southside With You, which clocks in just shy of 90 minutes, tells a story we’ve heard about for years now. However, there are more details here and to see them dramatized in this fashion does lead one to reflect a little more about what we’ve been told by the Obamas themselves. Say, Michelle as played by Sumpter, explaining to Barack, portrayed by Parker Sawyers, her reluctance to be romantically linked to him because as the only Black woman working at her law firm, her dating with the first Black man to show up at the office might lend credence to prejudices she has to grapple with in corporate culture as both a Black person and a Black woman. It’s an important note given that in the earliest years of the Obamas being national figures, many were especially critical to the point of cruel about how Michelle Obama behaved in a space not often welcoming to those like her.
There are still some hokey moments—Barack taking Michelle to a community-organizing event so she can hear him deliver a speech that includes lines like they ought to understand that "'no' is the end of the line." Of course, Michelle—who has always managed to humanize Barack in every sense of the word—calls him out on the notion that it would probably impress most women to see him this way. The same goes for her questioning why he stopped dating white women.
All of Barack’s answers and actions read as perfect, and in that respect, he comes across as the Barack we’ve read in The Audacity of Hope i.e. a skillful politician than say the more complicated youthful figure we read about in Dreams Of My Father. But the intent here is to make them magical. It is largely apolitical. This is more Lifetime on a good night than HBO.
In a recent interview, John Legend said of the film, "It makes you believe in love. It makes you believe in what a partnership like this can add to each person to make them both better."
On that goal, it succeeds.
Nevertheless, the most striking thing about the film—again, endearing and entertaining—is that it even exists. Moreover, it reminds me that we are in the beginning of what’ll become the mythologizing of Barack and Michelle Obama for decades to come. Now, figures like Dr. Martin Luther King have already been remade as an almost Santa Claus figure in public imagination, but Barack Obama is the first Black president of the United States. Both he and Michelle are revered in not just Black culture, but American society.
The minute Barack Obama was sworn into the presidency, he was going to be no longer just a person, but a symbol. That was understood, only I didn’t know that symbolism and reverence would extend to even before he gave his now infamous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The speech that made him a national politician.
As of now, Obama is on course to leave his historic run as president with favorables that mirror former President Ronald Reagan, only he and Michelle Obama are starting to have the sort of mystique that registers as kind of like a Black Camelot. The political legacy of Obama will be rightly judged as time passes—notably with how Black people truly fared under his watch. Nonetheless, it is worth highlighting what the fascination about their romance and journey to the White House means to people. All types of people at that.
Will there be a movie made about his first book? Will a political TV drama based on his first term be next? Are creatives already planning to follow both Barack and Michelle Obama’s post-political lives intently to craft some other future story to be sold to audiences?
Richard Tanne is the first to get it done, but he won’t be the last. He wanted to romanticize the Obamas and was successful. Now I just wonder what comes next.