A VISIT TO A MUSEUM, helped Barack Obama win Michelle Robinson’s heart. “Southside With You,” a new film about the first couple’s first date, includes a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. There they view an exhibition that features paintings by Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), representational works reflecting the African American experience with lithe figures dancing, shooting pool, and playing basketball.

Nominated for a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, “Southside with You” was written and directed by Richard Tanne and John Legend served as one of the executive producers. Set in 1989, Michelle is a young attorney at a Chicago law firm where Barack is a summer associate. She is reluctant to spend time with him outside of the office, so rather than ask her out on a date, he invites her to a community meeting. He picks her up, announces the meeting is scheduled to start later in the afternoon, and suggests they go to the museum to fill the time.

The movie is based on public information about how the Obamas met, from news articles and interviews they have conducted describing their first date, a daylong adventure that started with the museum visit, which led to lunch, going to see Spike Lee’s movie “Do the Right Thing,” and then on the way home, they stopped for ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins in Hyde Park, where they kissed for the first time. The overarching story is factual, but Tanne manufactured the dialogue and filled in other details to create a compelling narrative.

Barack took Michelle to a community meeting, for example, but Tanne believes this occurred later in their relationship. “But it made sense dramatically, so I put it in the movie,” the writer/director told Chicago magazine. He took artistic license with the art exhibition, too. The Obamas have said they went to the Art Institute of Chicago, but Tanne didn’t know what they saw when they got there. The museum’s summer 1989 schedule included an Andy Warhol retrospective, but there is no mention of an African American art exhibition. Tanne improvised, introducing the work of Los Angeles-based Barnes, a former professional football player.

“I just became so enamored again with Ernie Barnes’s art because he covered such a broad spectrum of life in America, and of black life in America,” Tanne told vanityfair.com. “It just seemed like there could really be a lot of artwork to get them talking to each other.”

“I just became so enamored again with Ernie Barnes’s art because he covered such a broad spectrum of life in America, and of black life in America.” — Richard Tanne, Writer/Director of “Southside With You”

Southside With You - Art Institute Scene - Ernie Barnes Painting
In the film “Westside With You,” Parker Sawyers (Barack) and Tika Sumpter (Michelle) view the painting “Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes.

 

Indeed, the scene at the exhibition is a pivotal one. Sparking a conversation about culture and prompting each to share details about their lives. The future first black President explains to the future first black First Lady that paintings by Barnes appeared on “Good Times,” the 1970s TV show. Michelle says she never watched the program. Nonetheless, she is drawn to the work and says a particular painting “Room Full A’Sistahs” reminds her of her family’s house on Sundays. They also pause before another painting, “Sugar Shack,” which appeared in the opening credits of “Good Times” and also on a 1976 Marvin Gaye album cover.

That first date, of course, put them on a historic path.

Since President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama moved into the White House nearly eight years ago, they have connected with the American people by celebrating the nation’s culture. There have been National Medal of Arts ceremonies and countless concerts. Toni Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the East Room, Lin-Manuel Miranda performed a work-in-progress that would become the Tony Award-winning “Hamilton” (and later returned to do a freestyle rap with the President). When fashion designers were tapped to decorate the White House during the 2015 holiday season, Duro Olowu trimmed 8-foot tall Christmas trees with vintage African fabrics in the Vermeil Room. And works by African American artists, including Glenn Ligon and Alma Thomas, are on view in the public spaces and private family quarters.

It all began with a visit to a Chicago museum. When “Southside With You” concludes and the credits roll, Barnes’s paintings appear throughout the list of cast and crew who worked on the film, along with a mention that the works were used with permission from the artist’s estate.

In a 2012 video about their first date (below), President Obama says, “Art, guys out there, it impresses people.” The First Lady followed by saying she learned in those first hours that he was essentially a renaissance man: “He showed all the sides. He was hip, cutting edge, cultural, sensitive.” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
“From Pads to Palette” explores the life of painter Ernie Barnes, from the football field to the artist studio, and includes illustrations of selected works.