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The romantic comedy of the Obama legacy

Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama in “Southside With You.” (IM Global)
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I can recall quite vividly the handful of times President Obama has done something that left me blushing. His 2004 “Audacity of Hope” speech at the Democratic National Convention marked the first time my arm-skin tingled as he shared an ideology. When he brushed the dirt off his shoulders a la Jay Z on the ’08 campaign trail, I practically swooned. Earlier this year, during the State of the Union address, when he retorted, “I know ’cause I won both of ’em,” after audience members cheered that his campaign days were over, I knew that, for all our ups and downs over the course of his two terms, I would always carry a torch for ol’ Barry O.

But our commander in chief is at his most winning, his most attractive, when he’s referencing his wife in interviews, acknowledging her in a crowd, or pulling her close on a dance floor at a White House ball. When he accepted the 2012 DNC nomination for reelection, he began his speech by harking back to the one she’d given earlier in the convention: “A few nights ago, everybody was reminded just what a lucky man I am.” It isn’t easy for heads of state to pull off “luckiest man” sentiments without sounding wooden or cliche, but Obama always manages it. There’s always been something electric in the romance of this first couple, a palpable edge that suggests frequent intellectual sparring, as much as it intimates an attraction that rarely lacks kindling.

It’s no wonder, then, that as the president and first lady prepare to leave office, one of the earliest pop culture forays into establishing their legacy will focus on the mythos of their marriage. Earlier this week, stills from “Southside with You,” a feature film about the Obamas’ first date, surfaced showing a grinning Parker Sawyers as Barack and a pensive Tika Sumpter as Michelle. The film, which is being described as a romantic drama in the set-in-one-day vein of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” is slated for 2016 release. It will mark Richard Tanne’s feature-length directorial debut.

The Obamas have eked out the details of their courtship gradually over the course of their campaigns and White House tenure. By now, most of it is common knowledge: they “met cute” at Sidley Austin, a corporate law firm in Chicago, when Michelle, already a practicing lawyer, was paired as an adviser with incoming law student Barack. She repeatedly rebuffed his advances until he offered to quit the job to preserve their professionalism while, hopefully, kickstarting an out-of-office romance. “Southside with You” begins after Michelle finally said yes.

In a 2012 promo video for “Dinner with Barack,” a campaign contest where three people would win the opportunity to dine with the Obamas, the first couple shared details about their first meal together. It began with lunch at the Art Institute of Chicago, included a trip to see “Do the Right Thing,” and ended with a kiss at a local Baskin-Robbins. In the video, Michelle suggests that, in planning the multi-location date, Barack was displaying his range as a person. “He was showing me all facets of his character,” she recalls, before describing him as “hip, cutting edge, cultural, sensitive.”

It’s consistent with the public image he’s worked to established during his presidency, by embracing interviews with both elite and amateur media, becoming the first sitting president to visit a prison, and, as recently as yesterday, indirectly calling out Bill Cosby, by going on record as confirming that drugging people before engaging in sexual activity with them is rape and that no civilized country should abide it. At this late hour in his administration, he seems to be showing us far more — if not all — of himself. I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, but I still feel like I’m being wooed after all these years. It’s easy to understand what’s kept Michelle, a staggering intellect in her own right, so engaged.

The president also recounted their storied first outing and the effort it took to pull off in his 2006 memoir, “The Audacity of Hope.” Of the kiss, he wrote, “It tasted of chocolate.”

If the date itself seems too cute by half in the recounting, the film seems to promise something more substantial. By comparing itself to “Before Sunrise,” it’s making a case for entree into that subset of romantic comedies that pride themselves on long walking scenes relying heavily on thought-provoking banter. Another structurally and tonally similar film that succeeded in that conceit is Barry Jenkins’s Bay Area dramedy, “Medicine for Melancholy.” If “Southside with You” can replicate what worked best about both of those exceptional films: cast chemistry, city-as-character, and the I-could-talk-to-you-for-hours dialogue that’s critical to the survival of most early romance — onscreen and in life — I’m hopeful that it will do the real Obamas justice.

And more than that, it’ll enter a small but growing pantheon of black films focused on incisive conversational wooing, taking a place among “Medicine for Melancholy,” Terence Nance’s “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” and Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere.” Ironically, “Southside with You” won’t be the first film to use Obama as an avatar for romantic aspiration. In “2 Days in New York,” a 2012 romcom directed by and starring Linklater’s “Before” series helmer Julie Delpy, Chris Rock’s character, Mingus, frequently seeks relationship advice from a cardboard cutout of our grinning POTUS that he keeps in his office. Ultimately, it’s one of those “conversations” that convince Mingus his relationship is worth saving.

Obama’s legacy will pass into the ownership of historians a little more than a year from now. But before it does, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that “Southside with You” does justice to Obama as not just a president, but as a man.

[An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Michelle Obama is three years older than Barack Obama. This version has been updated.]