Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 24 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.
Even were the pair not destined for the White House, writer-director Richard Tanne’s fictionalized story of a summer day that Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama and (played by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers) spent together on a summer’s day in 1989 would be the almost perfect story of a first date—as well as being the perfect date film.
As much as I liked Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I enjoyed this film even more. Here are two young, passionate people who do not pant and unclothe themselves for sex within an hour of meeting, as in so many so-called romantic films. In fact, as Michelle insists to her parents while primping for her rendezvous, she is not going out on a date. It is just a get together with from an intern at the posh lawfirm where she works. When he picks her up in his rust bucket of a yellow car (twice the camera reveals the large hole in its rusted-out floor), Michelle makes the first of a numerous denials throughout the rest of the film that she is on a date. She explains to Barak that she is his supervisor during his summer internship at the film. Because it would be violating the lawfirm’s rules forbidding members dating each other, she is not about to jeopardize her position.
The public meeting he has invited her to is several hours away, so they stop first at the Art Institute to admire the exhibition of famed black artist Bernie Barnes. This is a delightful scene as Barak talks about the former football player turned artist as they gaze at several of his paintings. Especially powerful is the artist’s “Sugar Shack” that singer Marvin Gaye used for the cover of his album I Want You.
The further the film progresses, the more I was impressed that these are young people filled with ideas they can articulately express and reams that hope to bring about. We see the work ethic and pride instilled in Michelle by her supportive parents, and also her keen awareness that she has two hurdles to confront at her law firm—her femaleness and her blackness. Thus she wants no nonsense from Barak, who will return to Harvard at the end of the summer. We see too Barak’s intense work ethic and his keen ability to understand, empathize with and thus relate warmly to others to others. It is obvious to Michelle as he talks about his father and his absence, his “incompleteness,” that her friend has very ambiguous feelings about his Kenyan parent. Indeed, she calls him on what she sees as his judgment of his dad.
After briefly taking part in a public festival in a park, the two arrive at the church where there is a community organization meeting to discuss the city council’s turndown of their request for a community center building. Michelle finds herself in defensive mode when everyone assumes that she is “Barak’s girl,” no, “Woman friend.” She learns how caring Barak has been—he had been a volunteer with the people the summer before—and what a life-changer he had been for the troubled son of one mother. What a convincing diplomat Barak turns out to be when he is called upon to speak. He douses the anger of the people and directs their energy, first at understanding where the Council members are coming from, and then suggesting the means for achieving their goals. We can certainly see the future eloquent politician at this point.
Afterwards the two continue to talk and argue over drinks, Michelle obviously helping Barak with his feelings about his father. After attending a showing of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Michelle is embarrassed when one of the lawyers from her firm and his wife encounters them outside the theater. When Barak gives an interpretation of what seems (to whites) to be a very negative ending to the film, the lawyer unwittingly shows the latent racism underlying so many white liberals. The film ends with an ice cream cone and a light kiss, and then a shot of each of them in their own bedrooms.
It is hard to believe that this is the first film that Richard Tanne has written and directed, so artfully made is this film. The conversation and speech are of his invention, but they sound so true. The speech in the church especially resembles those made later by Barak Obama, the Senator from Illinois and President of the United States, even giving us an insight into the values and beliefs of Barak Obama. Mr. Tanne could not have chosen two better actors to play the pair. Neither try to impersonate the real life characters, but due to their similar appearance and acting skills we always are convinced that they are the real thing. Even if you do not regard President Obama as a successful president, you will gain real insights into the Obamas as a couple, of their values, dreams, and beliefs. And as stated before, just Richard Tanne’s story of a first date makes for a delightful date film.
Oh yes, do not make the mistake of leaving when the credits st art rolling. Otherwise you might miss out on quite a number of Ernie Barnes’ dynamic paintings. Although I was familiar with some of them, I did not know that he flourished as an artist in the 60s. His style reminded me so much of the WPA murals and other paintings of the Depression era that I was surprised that he came later, following up his childhood interest and skill and becoming a professional after an extensive career in professional football. For a wonderful tour of his exciting paintings about black life Google his name and then go to the right and click on “More Images.”
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.
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