by Tirdad Derakhshani, Philadelphia Inquirer
Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter are the young Barack and Michelle as they go on their first date in “Southside With You.”
Hollywood hasn’t exactly been shy when it comes to churning out presidential biopics, from well-researched and ponderous entries such as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln to speculative potboilers like Oliver Stone’s JFK to fanciful numbers like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
But a film about the love life of a sitting president?
No need to cringe: Southside With You, which opened Friday, isn’t a lurid exposé, but a charming romantic drama that recounts Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson’s first date, in 1989.
A singularly nonpartisan entry, it’s a sweet indie pic that uses the moving, eventful encounter between the two young Chicago lawyers to tell a universal story about youth, identity, ambition, and love.
Written and directed by 31-year-old newcomer Richard Tanne, Southside With Youstars up-and-coming actor Parker Sawyers (Survivor, Monsters: Dark Continent) as Barack and Tika Sumpter (Gossip Girl, Bessie) as Michelle. Sumpter also produced, backed by executive producer and Obama friend John Legend.
Tanne, from Livingston in North Jersey, had been mulling the idea for years. “I’ve always been really struck by the Obamas and their relationship and the way they look at each other,” the director said in a conference call that also included Sawyers.
“Their public displays of affection look so real and so alive, something that’s so rare in people, especially public figures, that I was intrigued.”
Tanne said that when he heard about the Obamas’ first date, he felt sure it would make a compelling movie. The backstory is widely known: After rebuffing the future president, then a summer associate at her Chicago law firm, Michelle finally agreed to accompany Barack to a community meeting in the impoverished neighborhood where he had served as an organizer and advocate. She did not consider it a date.
In a sly move, Barack asked her to meet him hours before the event so they could spend time together. The film captures that day, which took them to an exhibition of Ernie Barnes’ paintings, to the park for a picnic lunch, to the meeting where Barack impressed Michelle with his passionate commitment to helping the residents. After the meeting, they went to the movies, where they watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
Barack and Michelle married three years later, in 1992.
“That first date involved the classic boy-girl conflict because she wasn’t interested in him,” said Tanne. “So he gave himself that one day to prove to her why she should be with him.”
Tanne’s tight script opens as each lawyer is preparing to go out and ends with their first kiss, a structure that appealed to Sumpter, 36, who said she signed on as a producer after her first meeting with Tanne. “Richard [Tanne] had asked me to play Michelle, but in the beginning I just wanted to produce, to make sure the film got made even if I wasn’t going to star,” Sumpter said during a visit to Philadelphia this summer.
“Once I saw the script, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I want to play this role!’ “It’s playing a woman every girl wants to become,” she said. “And it’s so rare to play a woman with so much strength and complexity and beauty. She is so unapologetic about her intelligence. In a lot of romantic films, the lady is always crying or chasing after the guy and I’m always like, ‘Really, y’all?’ “Now, Michelle, she’s strong.”
Sumpter said Tanne’s film also transcends the typical romance. “Yes, it’s about love, but it’s much more, it’s about these people defining who they are at a young age. And to me it’s also about a woman who doesn’t want to be overshadowed by this hotshot guy coming in from Harvard.”
Is that why she refuses to date him? “She tells [Barack] that, as a woman, she has to work twice as hard to be noticed in a male-dominated [law] firm and four times as hard as a black woman. She’s not going to jeopardize that.”
Sumpter said Tanne, who did extensive research for his screenplay, had creative freedom, but she would nudge him gently when she felt his dialogue rang false. “I’d say, ‘I don’t think she’d say it that way. It’s what a white guy might say!’ ” she said, laughing.
She said she was surprised to find that much of the dramatic weight rests on Michelle’s shoulders. “I remember thinking that next to this amazing man as Barack, no one would see me,” she said of Sawyers. “But I guess her journey fluctuates a little bit more, as her character has to travel greater emotional distance.”
Sawyers said he was impressed by Tanne’s ability to humanize the characters. Barack, for one, is shown chain smoking, a habit Michelle doesn’t particularly like. “In writing him, Richard tried to get to the essence and truth of the guy, and he was a chain smoker,” said Sawyers. “And he did smoke a lot of pot in high school, as he admits to Michelle.”
The movie Michelle sums up the movie Barack as “definitely a smooth-talking brother,” Tanne said. But what clinches their date, Sawyers chimed in, isn’t the suave movie choice or their goodnight kiss but the community meeting, “which gave Barack a chance to reveal other parts of him, a different side.””By the end you realize he’s a smooth-talking brother with a lot of substance.”