The First Couple's First Date Charms In 'Southside With You'

Aug 26, 2016
Originally published on August 26, 2016 6:03 pm

It's 1989 in the new movie Southside With You, and two attractive young lawyers are going out for the first time. Were their names not Michelle and Barack, we might not be along for the ride. But they are, and the ride is sweet in the idyll constructed by first-time feature-writer/director Richard Tanne.

These two not-yet-lovebirds may work together at a prestigious law firm in Chicago, but on this particular morning, it's their folks who are doing the cross-examining. Michelle's parents quiz her over breakfast about why she's all dolled up on a Saturday, while Barack gets the third degree from his grandmother on the phone.

Played by Parker Sawyers, the on-screen Barack looks a lot like the future president, though with less prominent ears. His voice is higher, but you figure it'll deepen with all the smoking he's trying to conceal from Michelle when he picks her up.

She is played by Tika Sumpter with warmth and a future first lady's confidence. And she quickly realizes that smoking's not all he's keeping from her. When she discovers the community meeting isn't for hours yet, and that he has planned an outing to an Afro-centric exhibit at the Art Institute, she's annoyed.

"This is not a date," she says, echoing words she'd uttered to her parents an hour or so earlier.

"OK, it's not a date," he replies, muttering more quietly as she turns away, "until you say it is." Still, as long as they're just a few blocks from the art exhibit, would it kill her to look at it with him?

No, it would not, she concedes. And the images they discover there prove a balm to soothe nerves. The future president quotes a bit of Gwendolyn Brooks' poem, "We Real Cool." Michelle reminisces about piano lessons and the father she idolizes. In short, they relax. And as the afternoon progresses to lunch, a stroll, and that community meeting, their verbal sparring gradually becomes conversation.

One of the things you realize watching Southside With You is how seldom budding relationships are allowed to just be on screen — not pushing the plot forward, or setting up a tense standoff or a joke. Of course, conceptually, devoting a whole movie to a single date puts pressure on a screenwriter: He's got to keep things moving, and varied, and lively, while in this case laying in background that squares with what we already know about two of the most famous people in the world. Filmmaker Richard Tanne appears to have conceived Southside With You as sort of an origin-story, with occasional shout-outs to the political-ascendance sequel we've witnessed in real life.

The Obamas have talked on occasion about their first-date-that-was-not-a-date, so its basic outline is decently well known: They did go to the Art Institute, and they grabbed ice cream, and caught Spike Lee's just-released Do The Right Thing. And if that wasn't the afternoon that Michelle first got to see Barack's skills as community-organizer-in-chief, the film makes a decent case that it should've been.

"You sounded a little professorial," she tells him, "but you definitely have a knack for making speeches."

The film isn't likely to make converts of those who aren't already fond of the first couple, but coming so late in their tenure at the White House, it at least doesn't play like a political ad.

Can't say it makes me yearn for a presidential first-date series, exactly — a flirty Millard and Abigail Fillmore? Not as appealing — but a Hollywood romance that's adult, smart and engaging counts as a rarity these days. And in that context, Southside With You is a charmer.

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In Baton Rouge, people are using whatever tools they have to help their community recover from the flooding that hit the area a couple weeks ago. And that includes cameras. Four photographers have been creating portraits of those people who've been affected, focusing not on what people lost but on what they saved. They call their project Humans of the Water. My co-host, Ari Shapiro, met one of the photographers.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Documentary photography is not typically Collin Richie's style. Most of his work involves snapping for weddings, magazines, corporate ads. When a local magazine asked him to photograph someone who was using his boat to rescue neighbors from the floodwaters, the story drew him in. He went back to photograph another flood victim. And then he went back again. And that's how this project was born. At his studio in the old part of Baton Rouge, Collin Richie pulled up some of the images on his computer screen.

COLLIN RICHIE: So this is an image of a man named Hilton Pray. And he's surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs. They all took water. And if you notice, they're all over a deck and tables and chairs - everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Some of them are weighted down with stones to dry off.

RICHIE: Yeah. And they - yeah, he was scared of the wind. And he didn't want any of the items to blow into the still-flooded yard and take it any worse. You can see albums, too. They're trying to separate the pages. And he had lived in the same home for 72 years. And he was 82 years old. And so it was - basically, he references it as his entire family history.

SHAPIRO: It's a really compelling photograph because you can't see above his shoulders. You just see these old hands holding this framed photograph with this young family. And it's clearly taken decades ago.

RICHIE: This is a mentor. This is a gentleman, Jeremy Crawford (ph). And he's actually sitting next to an American flag that his roommate brought home after his service in Afghanistan. They are both veterans. And it was actually - a group of them all lived close by. And they were all trying to salvage their Navy medals, their Army medals, their service flags. Those things were the most important to them.

SHAPIRO: So this is somebody repairing a house.

RICHIE: Yeah. You're seeing an influx of contractors from the unflooded areas. And when we approached him, and we started taking his picture, and I said, you don't mind, do you? He said, you do your thing. I'll do mine. And as we're walking away, he kind of half turned and said, hell of a thing, wasn't it? And that just was really powerful.

SHAPIRO: What surprised you about doing this kind of documentary photography? I mean, this is not your typical line of work.

RICHIE: I think what surprised all of us that are working together is how humble people were. They ask, why are you taking a picture of me? My neighbor took seven feet. I took six feet. They always relate it to someone who had it worse. And they don't want the focus to be on them because they know so many of their family and friends are in such a worse spot.

SHAPIRO: And when you asked people about the one thing they took with them, how did they generally react?

RICHIE: They'd pause and immediately walk me to the one item. They knew exactly what was most important.

SHAPIRO: One thing that struck me about a lot of your photographs that I looked at was the role of faith in many people's lives.

RICHIE: Yeah. And one of the images that really spoke to me was a photo of a man named Adam. And he said when he came into his home, the only item that wasn't in disarray that he recognized was a sign that said, faith. And he took a video of it himself. He wanted to remember that moment. And the video shows him walking into still water in the home. And the faith sign's cockeyed. And he corrects it. And then the video closes.

SHAPIRO: And you took a photo of him holding that sign that said, faith. He's wearing a blue tank top and a blue headband. And he's got a kind of scraggly beard, red gloves. And he's holding that sign that says, faith - to hope for things which are not seen but are true. What kind of impact do you see this project having as you watch it go out on social media and other venues?

RICHIE: I hope it would inspire photographers elsewhere, when tragedy hits, to do the same. I think when you're faced with an adversity the size that Louisiana is now, we need everyone to help. And you can help best by doing what you do best. And, you know...

SHAPIRO: So carpenters pick up a hammer. And photographers pick up a camera.

RICHIE: And lawyers start helping with legal needs. People who are good with paperwork start helping people, make sure those FEMA applications are perfect. You know, everyone has something they're good at. And if we all come together and use our talents, we'll come out of this a lot better.

SHAPIRO: Well, Collin, thanks a lot for your time.

RICHIE: Thank you, Ari.

MCEVERS: My co-host Ari Shapiro talking to photographer Collin Richie in Baton Rouge, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.