The first laugh in Southside with You is a close-up of a cigarette in a man’s hand. We laugh because we know this movie is about the first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, and we recognize this close-up as a droll joke about the 44th POTUS and his curiously stubborn—curious, that is, for someone famously in control—bad habit. The cigarette indeed belongs to the young law student Obama, seen here on a warm summer day in 1989 as he prepares to meet his co-worker (who’s also his superior) for an outing.
This early moment in Southside with You, and the assumption that the audience is in on the joke, indicates both the film’s strength and weakness. Nobody can experience this movie as merely a pleasant portrait of two young African-Americans on the town; we know who they are—or who they will be—and we see the film through that historical prism. The movie repeatedly confirms that the young Obamas were extremely smart, deeply committed people. It’s like an extended version of a convention video, crafted to please the faithful and maybe haul in a few uncommitteds.