The mythologizing begins. President Barack Obama isn’t even out of office yet, but here we have the first biopic of what I’m sure will be many in the years to come, about an earlier time in his life, long before he was president or even thinking about running for office. Specifically, this lovely romance takes place on the day that he took the woman who would become his wife, Michelle Robinson, out for their first date in Chicago in the late summer of 1989.
It doesn’t sound like there’s much of a plot here, right? Well, no, there isn’t, but the good thing about this film from writer-director Richard Tanne, is that it has such a relaxed, free-flowing feel to it that it doesn’t necessarily have to even been about the future first couple of the United States (although, yes, that knowledge does give every scene an added dimension that can’t help but feel prophetic). Still, the movie steers mercifully clear of too many winks at the camera and instead focuses on the nature of Barack and Michelle’s first date, as the two get to know each other better through communication of their life stories, principles and ideals.
The key to our belief in these characters is the casting, and to that end Parker Sawyers fares far better as a young Barack than Tika Sumpter does as Michelle. Sawyers carries himself with a casual, appealing, chain-smoking, charismatic stride that can’t help but convey the essence of Obama’s personality, despite not looking or even sounding all that much like the president. But he doesn’t have to- with just a whiff of the man’s subtle mannerisms and cadences, but more importantly, his thoughtful, optimistic and forward-thinking nature, we believe almost instantly that this is a young Barack, already rolling along on the path to where his future would bring him. Michelle is a different story, as Sumpter seems to be trying a bit harder to capture the First Lady’s tone of voice and way of speaking in a way that distracts from us being able to buy her as the actual woman. You can see her acting in a way that Sawyers is not, yet it doesn’t ultimately hurt the film, as the two manage a nice, light chemistry in spite of the opposing acting styles.
Tanner took the basic outlines of the Obama’s first date, where it’s been reported they saw Spike Lee’s newly released Do the Right Thing, and stretched it into an all day affair where the two went to an art museum, a community meeting, a picnic in the park, and drinks before the movie, giving us a chance to see them as they tentatively circle each other and share their ideas about work, the future, race, and their own backgrounds as they slowly come to know and understand more about one another. Barack was a summer associate at the law firm where Michelle worked as his advisor, so he had to do some persuading as she was reluctant to be seen as cozying up to the “first cute black guy who walks through the firm’s doors,” but given his persistent wooing and their similar interests, of course we all can see where this is ultimately headed. The movie is clearly modeled after the Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, where we follow two people on their very first steps toward getting to know each other and falling in love. Despite the familiarity of the concept, it works very well here, as none of the dialogue is too forced and the connection between them is sensitively rendered, believable, and finally, sweet and moving.
With so few romantic comedies or even romances at all being made these days, that’s another reason that this one feels so refreshing. A tenderhearted love story about the president and first lady’s early meeting aside, there are hardly any films made anymore about the connection two people feel as they fall in love, and one that puts the meeting of the minds and how that can lead to more front and center is one to be celebrated. There are other ideas touched on in Barack and Michelle’s all day conversation, and the movie includes a glimpse of the early inspiration Barack could derive from a short speech at a community center, but the most memorable part of this lovely first date is the way in which two smart people are shown to see something they admire in the other that’s primarily about respect and the discovery of who they are as a person that draws them together. You can see why these two are going to last.
* * * 1/2