Although President Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House is far from over and his legacy is still being subject to debate, two new scripted films looking back on his early life are headed to a theater near you.
The first, “Southside With You,” recreates the president’s first date with first lady Michelle Obama in 1989. It’s received strong reviews since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and has already been purchased for wider distribution by Roadside Attractions and Miramax. The second, which is still in the early planning stages, entitled “Barry,” will focus on Obama’s formative years as a college student at Columbia University in the early 1980s.
Both films represent a testament to the staying power of Obama’s origin story, which helped propel him onto the national stage after his largely autobiographical keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. The “son of a goat herder” became an overnight sensation as did his previously published memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”
In fact, the sales of that book – which focused in part on Obama’s own struggle to understand his identity as a biracial man with a mostly absentee father – as well as its follow-up, “The Audacity of Hope,” remain the predominant source of the Obama family’s wealth. And while attitudes towards the president’s job performance have become deeply partisan and polarized, the aspirational aspect of his journey has not diminished in many people’s eyes.
“I think anyone that’s read ‘Dreams of My Father’ knows that President Obama had a very compelling story – and that’s long before his now historic ascension to the presidency. While I do wonder a little if it’s too soon for so many stories to pour about him, I’m such a fan of his memoir that I completely understand why someone would turn the story of his youth into a movie,” Ebony magazine columnist Michael Arceneaux told MSNBC on Wednesday. ”He’s just too interesting a figure with too unique a story for Hollywood to not take that chance.
If the early reviews of “Southside With You” are the be believed, the risk of making a film about a sitting president’s love life has paid off. The Hollywood Reporter called it “absorbing and genial,” singling out Parker Sawyers’ performance as a young Obama in particular for praise.
“Very tall and bereft of Obama’s slight geekiness (a moment devoted to his protruding ears doesn’t convince because the actor’s are not), Parker Sawyers crafts an immaculately considered portrait of a man of stature in the making; the ideas and ambitions are visible in rough-hewn form, quite recognizable from what we know publicly but with a ways to go,” wrote Todd McCarthy in his review.
According to Variety’s critic Justin Chang, the approximately 80-minute film, which is told in the real time style of Richard Linklater’s classic “Before Sunrise” movies, will likely appeal to viewers who “are probably already inclined to listen to their president,” but he also writes: “It’s nice to think at least a few non-supporters in the audience might be moved by the spirit of empathy that suffuses this soulful and disarmingly romantic snapshot of Obama’s fateful first date with Michelle Robinson on a summer day in 1989 Chicago, long before either guessed they’d someday be president and First Lady of the United States.”
Although that film is more about the burgeoning romance between the first couple, a key scene, set at a community gathering in Chicago where the Obama character makes a philosophical case for the kind of political consensus that so was later so elusive once he became president in real life. It is this portion of the film that has been singled out critics because it not only provides insight into a man who has often been perceived as aloof, but it also recaptures the spirit of what made him compelling to so many Americans in the first place.
“I think the backstory of Obama as a youth is a compelling one for a number of reasons,” freelance journalist and commentator David A. Love told MSNBC on Wednesday. “Everyone wants to know what makes a president ‘tick’ so to speak, and looking back at that person’s past provides some clues as to what life experiences shaped the life of the most important person in the country, if not the world.”
“His life story speaks to America’s future, where people who are black or brown begin to enter spaces that were previously reserved for certain people,” he added.