“Southside With You” — a date movie about a date — won’t jolt the box office like a summer superhero movie might. But the film, which premiered this weekend, may become one of the most talked about movies this year.
That’s because the first date depicted in “Southside With You” happens to be between a woman named Michelle and a man named Barack.
Yes, the future first lady and president.
But before then, the two were like most young people developing adult identities while wrestling with the pasts that forged them. They were unknown, uncertain and undefined, and the universality of the young couple coming to terms with life’s choices — and each other — is one of many reasons “Southside” succeeds. Other intangibles include restrained performances by Parker Sawyer and Tika Sumpter, both of whom resist falling into impersonations.
The movie’s leisurely pace helps, too, reflecting the daylong date (a description Michelle initially resists) that follows the budding couple from an art museum to a community organizing meeting to drinks to a screening of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” to their first kiss outside a Baskin Robbins.
In between, moviegoers are given glimpses of the future president’s peripatetic upbringing, political passion and rhetorical gifts, as well as the strength and grace that later made Michelle so widely admired.
Most notably, “Southside With You” presents its protagonists as accessible, relatable people, not the political symbols the Obamas and other first couples become.
Accessible isn’t the image of this year’s top two presidential contenders. As public figures for decades, their lack of real-life relatability may be as much a factor as policies as reasons why Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton poll as the least-liked presidential contenders ever.
Former President Bill Clinton tacitly acknowledged that Hillary’s public perception was strictly political and not personal when he began his speech to the Democratic National Convention with: “In the spring of 1971, I met a girl.”
“Girl” isn’t an apt appellation for a woman vying to become Madame President. But he could get away with it in his effort to humanize his wife after years in the often-dehumanizing political arena. He even elaborated on their back story in much the same way “Southside with You” does with the Obamas, including Hillary’s evolving advocacy during their Yale years and beyond.
Donald Trump, too, is more caricature than character after decades defined by tabloid coverage and self-branding. So Melania Trump and the adult Trump children took turns at the Republican National Convention podium recalling his family past in order to advance his political future.
In their own right, however, both Bill Clinton and Melania Trump present public-relations problems just as their spouses do. His come from decades of politics, while hers come from more recent controversies, including this week’s threat from her lawyer to sue several news organizations for articles she believes were defamatory.
First ladies (and maybe a first gentleman, or “first laddie,” as Bill Clinton once suggested) matter more in American politics than in other Western democracies, where political spouses are noted, but not necessarily politically prominent.
“Americans want the first family to be a reflection of their own ideals,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
And yet both Bill Clinton and Melania Trump offer more refraction than reflection from the usual first spouse ideal.
Bill’s gender alone would rewrite the role, and because he was previously president, Brower believes he would likely be diplomatically deployed or used in a more overt political capacity, which would leave some of the traditional East Wing roles to a trusted social secretary instead of the first spouse.
Melania has indicated she would prefer a more traditional role, but unlike previous first ladies, she’s not only no stranger to the spotlight, she sought it out during her modeling career.
Indeed, both Bill Clinton and Melania Trump are used to the trappings, and travails, of fame.
But Michelle Obama, like most before her, was not. In fact, Brower said of Michelle and previous first ladies, “All seemed to be stunned at how much privacy they lose.” Brower added: “That’s something I came away from researching this book: Just how tough this job is for these women.”
Especially for Michelle, who like her husband became a polarizing figure. Brower believes that some of the criticism “certainly has to be racially motivated because she’s played it very, very safe.” (“Southside With You” foreshadows some of this challenge with complex conversations about race.) And some of it is due to “people disliking her husband, which is a lot of what these women face.”
It may have been a tough job for the first lady, but for the first family, too. “For the Obamas, this was such an incredibly fast rise to the top,” Brower said.
Their fast rise contrasts with the unhurried pace of “Southside With You,” which recalls that before breaking down political barriers, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson had to break down barriers between each other.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.