Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers star in Southside With You, based on the Obamas' first date.
Inspired by accounts of the first couple’s first date, Richard Tanne’s romantic and intimate directorial debut Southside With You brings audiences along for the ride as charming first-year law associate Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) takes reluctant attorney Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) on a daylong excursion in and around Chicago’s South Side.
It takes some coaxing for Barack to persuade Michelle, his advisor at the firm, to join him in a whirlwind of activities on a hot summer day in Chicago, 1989. Michelle, a career-oriented, Ivy League-educated attorney and the only black woman at her firm, has her guard up against even a whiff of perceived impropriety. The last thing she wants is for her superiors to judge the firm’s two African-American colleagues for unprofessional behavior.
Barack agrees in theory, but his profound attraction to Michelle trumps caution. And he’s self-confident enough to believe he can remain professional and capture her heart at the same time. His all-out attempt to win her affection includes a visit to an art exhibit, a rousing community meeting he leads at a South Side church, and a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Although the pair have no inkling they will someday make history together, the fact that the date marks the first spark of romance between the future first couple makes this sweet and inspiring love story all the more poignant.
Southside with You stars Tika Sumpter (Get On Up, “Bessie”), Parker Sawyers (Zero Dark Thirty, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Vanessa Bell Calloway (Coming To America, What’s Love Got to Do With It). The film is written and directed by Richard Tanne (You Never Left, “Cinema Cool”).
For first-time writer-director Tanne, Southside With You started with a glance. A glance between Michelle and Barack Obama, that is. “There’s something special about the way the president and the first lady look at each other, and it’s something we’ve seen since the beginning of their rise to prominence,” Tanne says. “Their connection seems authentic and deep and vibrant. That’s a rare thing in life, and I think it’s an even rarer thing for public figures.”
Tanne recalls seeing accounts of Michelle and Barack’s first date during the 2008 presidential campaign. “They talked about it a lot in both presidential campaigns,” Tanne recalls. “Michelle wasn’t interested at first, and Barack had to win her over. By the end of the first date, he had done just that. It just felt like the perfect conflict for a movie.”
But it wasn’t until years later that Tanne fell in love himself — an experience that brought him the understanding he felt was necessary to tell the story. “I realized it wasn’t just kind of a meet-cute story about falling in love,” Tanne observes. “It was also about finding that person who makes you a better version of yourself.”
Tanne was drawn to the idea of Michelle Robinson giving Barack Obama one opportunity to prove himself. “By all accounts, that’s how it happened in real life,” he says. “She was willing to give him one day. So in the movie you have two characters who are stuck together for a day. They have no one to turn to, think about or talk to, except each other.”
Tanne hopes the movie shines a light on the depth of feeling even new love can inspire. “It’s not always only a physical attraction and an intellectual attraction. It can also be a deeply emotional one. You are finding that person who can hold up a mirror and show you who you are and who you can be. I think these two characters do that for each other. They’re a team, and they’re a partnership. They elevate each other.”
Southside With You producer Tika Sumpter first learned about the project when she heard Tanne wanted her to play the role of Michelle. He gave her a one-page handwritten outline he’d completed in 2013. “I thought the perspective was something we hadn’t seen,” Sumpter says. “I met with Richard right away. Once he turned in the script to me, I was blown away. That was it — it became a passion.”
Although she admits she’s most comfortable as an actor, once she took on the role of producer, Sumpter says she told Tanne, “‘I don’t care if I play Michelle or not.’ My main goal was to get the film made.”
While details of the couple’s conversations are fictionalized, the events depicted in the film really happened. The couple attended an art exhibition, went to see Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, enjoyed a picnic lunch, went out for a drink and even visited Baskin-Robbins for chocolate ice cream, Michelle’s favorite flavor. Tanne learned about the date through a variety of news articles as well as a video he saw of the couple recounting their first date.
Only one event included in the onscreen date — a community organizing meeting at which Obama delivers an eloquent speech — took place later in the couples’ early courtship and in a different South Side location than was selected for the movie.
The film makes no acknowledgement of the historic heights the young couple will go on to achieve. “I never had the urge to foreshadow or to wink,” Tanne says, “because what was appealing to me was who the president and first lady were as people before they became the icons we know today. They both have a kind of modern rags-to-riches story. They both have led very inspirational lives, and this seemed to be a fascinating entry point into those lives because they weren’t fully formed yet.”
Southside With You is now playing in select theaters.
For more information, visit southsidewithyou.com