Long before the Obamas became the First Family, there was a first date. The new movie “Southside With You” imagines how that pivotal event in 1989 may have unfolded between two young attorneys named Barack and Michelle.
The film unfolds over the course of a single day. It’s been compared to Richard Linklater's "Before" films, which also follow a couple as they walk and talk and slowly fell in love in the span of a day.
At the time of their first date, Michelle Robinson (played by Tika Sumpter) was an attorney at a prominent Chicago law firm. Barack Obama (played by Parker Sawyers) was a recent graduate from Harvard Law School who was a summer associate at that firm. Because of their professional relationship, she is adamantly against them dating — so he doesn’t ask her for a date. Instead, the former community organizer asks her to attend a community event where the audience sees the brilliant orator that he was to become.
“Southside With You” was written and directed by Richard Tanne. Prior to this, he’d only made short films and done some B-movie acting, but “Southside With You” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January where it was picked up for distribution. The Frame host John Horn spoke with Tanne in Park City.
To hear the full conversation click the play button above. Below are highlights.
On casting a young Michelle Robinson:
Tika Sumpter was the first person on the project back when the story was just a one page outline that I had. It landed in her lap and she wanted to get together, and expressed a desire to play the role of Michelle Robinson and a desire to do whatever it took to help me get it made as a producing partner. And I said, OK, let me go write the thing and we'll see if you're still interested. Several months later, I finished the script, she was still interested and she made good on her pledge to help get the movie made. We teamed up as producing partners, and even more impressive, she delivers a really beautiful and complex performance in the film.
On casting a young Barack Obama:
I needed somebody who could play all the levels: someone who could be goofy but serious, intellectual but charming, a stand-up, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy — but also a little arrogant and a little bit pushy. So it's very rare to be able to find that in one actor. The reason that we found it in Parker [Sawyers] is because that's actually Parker.
On the original outline for the script:
It was really a tonal piece. It was about the poetic tone that we would be striving for. It was about the authenticity of capturing that moment in time. Mostly it highlighted the romance and the love story. And [it was] a story about two people finding each other just at that moment in time where you need to start living up to your potential and not just doing what society expects of you, but what you expect of yourself and finding that person who's uniquely qualified to help you make that leap.
On recreating that first date:
It really was a matter of doing my homework about where, for example, Michelle was at at that [law] firm at the time emotionally. By many accounts, she wasn't fully satisfied with the work she was doing there. I just extrapolated from there and decided that was a pretty good arc of finding greater satisfaction in what you do in life.
On the scene where Barack gives a speech:
The speech was always an opportunity for him to reach Michelle at a deeper level at that point in time. That's what I thought leading up to writing it. But then when I actually got to writing the church scene, I started to realize that this is a chance to really explore that community and what his words would mean to the community as well. So it became equally about impressing Michelle and also just earnestly inspiring the people in the community. Writing it was fun. It was probably the most fun that I had while writing the script.
"Southside with You" opens Friday.