When Barack met Michelle: warm reviews for movie Southside With You about their romantic first date

Imagine a film that chronicled Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull's first date. Or went behind the scenes as Julia Gillard fell for Tim Mathieson after sparks flew at a Melbourne hair salon.

Tiki Sumpter as the future Michelle Obama and Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama in <i>Southside With You</i>.
Tiki Sumpter as the future Michelle Obama and Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama in Southside With YouPhoto: Matt Dinerstein

Or, going back a few years, a movie that showed a young John Howard charming Janette Parker at a Liberal Party function.

While none of those ideas sound like the makings of a box office smash, a film showing how Barack Obama courted Michelle before they married has been winning warm reviews after premiering at Sundance Film Festival.

Writer-director Richard Tanne's first feature, Southside With You focuses on a summer day in Chicago in 1989 when Obama (played by little-known Parker Sawyers) took out the then Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter from the Ride Along movies and Gossip Girl).

After Michelle makes it very clear it's not a date given they are colleagues at a law firm, they go to an art exhibition then a community meeting where he gives an impressive speech, watch Spike Lee's just-released movie Do The Right Thing then go for ice cream, kissing outside the store for the first time.


There are personal touches: she talks about growing up playing piano and learning French in a family where "education was always priority number one." He picks her up in a battered car with a hole in the floor, listens to Janet Jackson on the radio as they drive and tries to hide his smoking habit.

There is humour at the community meeting when various women introduce an increasingly annoyed Michelle as "Barack's woman". "Finally, a sister!" says one.

It could have been as awkward as that recent telemovie about Mary Donaldson meeting Crown Prince Frederik or as cloying as the film about Princess Diana's romance with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan but first reviews suggest Southside With You is a success as both a romance and something deeper.

While noting it could have been accused of being propaganda had Obama been campaigning for president, The Hollywood Reporter called it "warm and surprisingly engaging" and noted it can simply be enjoyed as "perceptive, intelligent, entirely credible imagining of how these two very bright young lawyers broke the ice."

Variety called it an unqualified success at "something unique, even audacious in American independent movies: a fact-based presidential 'prequel' that seeks to present two iconic world figures as convincing and relatable romantic leads."

"On the surface a mellow and agreeably meandering Before Sunrise-style walkabout [it] deepens into a pointed, flowing conversation about the many challenges (and varieties) of African-American identity, the need for both idealism and compromise, and the importance of making peace with past disappointments in order to effect meaningful change in the future."

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 20:  First lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama descend the steps from the U.S. Capitol after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America on January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama is the first African-American to be elected to the office of President in the history of the U.S.  (Photo by Tannen Maury-Pool/Getty Images)

The real thing ... first Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama after his inauguration in Washington in 2009. Photo by Tannen Maury-Pool/Getty Images.

And Vanity Fair, while noting that it falls short as biography for scant treatment of who Robinson is, says Southside With You works nicely as a romance - "a series of getting-to-know-you vignettes that amount to basically the best (sex-free) first date ever."

There was praise too for how well the two actors captured such well-known public figures.

"Very tall and bereft of Obama's slight geekiness (a moment devoted to his protruding ears doesn't convince because the actor's are not), Parker Sawyers crafts an immaculately considered portrait of a man of stature in the making," noted The Hollywood Reporter.

"From the first second she's on screen, the striking Tika Sumpter is one hundred percent the Michelle Obama the public has come to know: formidable, intellectually probing and a bit fierce."

Variety had particular praise for Sumpter, noting how much she resembled the young Michelle Obama.

"Facing less pressure than her co-star to deliver a pitch-perfect imitation [she] digs deep into the role of an initially guarded but unfailingly quick-witted woman in whom we immediately catch a glimpse of the formidable figure she will eventually become."

While there are no details yet of when Southside With You will screen in Australia, it is surely a template for a future Australian film called When Malcolm Met Lucy or simply Eastside With You.