Long before they moved into the White House, Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama worked together at a corporate law firm in Chicago.
The film, "Southside With You," offers a fictional snapshot of those early days. It stars Tika Sumpter as Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Obama and was written and directed by Richard Tanne, who you may have heard on our show recently.
“Southside” takes place in 1989 Chicago, over the course of a day in what is a fictionalized version of the couple’s first date — or non-date in Michelle’s eyes. At the time, she was a young attorney and Barack was a summer associate working at her firm, Sidley Austin.
Actress Tika Sumpter took on the challenge of depicting the current first lady in her pre-Obama days. When Sumpter came by to speak with The Frame host John Horn recently, she explained what convinced her to take on the role.
What inspired you originally to sign on to this film?
It was a synopsis, basically, and I just thought it was a perfect idea. I've never seen two African-American leads in a walk-and-talk, and it was just so smart. Regardless of whatever color or whoever it was, I just thought it was a smart idea and the perspective of a 25- and 28-year-old origin story. I wanted to have a meeting with [Richard Tanne] right away.
What was that idea? Just the first date?
Yeah. The idea was just the first date. I also loved the reluctance of Michelle not wanting to date Barack and what that could be, and I just feel like nobody came from that perspective. I haven't heard it. And every time I told somebody, an executive, they were like, That's interesting. So I just knew it was a good idea.
The design of the story and your depiction of Michelle Obama is that while he may go on to become president, you're the catch in this story. You're the reluctant person on the date. In fact, you are more capable at that point and more accomplished.
Yeah, she's the prize. I just think in a lot of romantic movies, the woman is always kind of chasing and sometimes even [saying], He's not that in to me, and things like that. It was just nice to play a complex, intelligent, capable woman. Everybody has their faults, but for the most part I feel like she's the one who's the stronger at the time of the two.
Michelle at that point was working for a firm called Sidley Austin and she could have easily had a career as a corporate lawyer. Who knows where that would have gone, but she makes a decision that has something to do with the man she ends up marrying. But she makes a big decision to not become that person. What happens in her life that takes her in a different direction?
Even before she was at Sidley Austin she did pro bono work [while] at Harvard Law for single moms. So she always was fighting for people who had less. and just [for] justice in general. I think sometimes another person can come into your life and make you more aware of the things you want and the things you don't want. So I think there was a turn there that happened. And also, when she did actually go see Barack talk at a community meeting — maybe not on the first date, it was probably later on — I think his character and the heart he had for the people made her realize, Wait a second, there are some things that I want to do as well.
When you came on to this film, you didn't just come on as an actor, you also came on as a producer. What did that mean and what did it entail?
Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, you know. I didn't necessarily know what it meant at the time, but I kind of naturally sprung toward lining up meetings and having my agents set me up with other producers who wanted to be part of the project, and helping to get financing and making casting decisions. Really being a part of the whole process rather than just coming in and acting. And I loved doing that because you have a say. Also I protected [director Richard Tanne's] idea. I think a lot of times in movies, everybody wants to put their fingerprints all over it and say, Well, I did that part, I did that part. And I think my main job was protecting the original idea.
When you were going out to meet with producers to see if they would finance the movie, what is the reception you got?
A positive reception because people liked the idea. It was just whether somebody was going to give the money. [Laughs] We love you but not that much! So we had an original deal with another company but we just didn't feel like it was the right fit, and then finally I had a friend that I met over a decade ago who created this amazing company. I gave him the script and he was like, I want to do it. So he financed it.
So always be kind to your old friends?
I actually worked at a place he would come to. It was a private members club.
You were waiting tables?
No, I used to be a guest list manager at the first Soho House in New York City. He was a founding member from London and we became friends through a mutual friend. And later on he built this amazing company in L.A. called IM Global. [His name is] Stewart Ford. He read it and called me and said, I want to make this movie. You gotta be nice to people on your journey in general because you never know who's going to come back and help you out. He really put the money where his mouth was.
There are a lot of people who know what the president's life was like as a young man. Probably not as many know what Michelle's life was like as a young woman. What surprised you in terms of what you found that may have clashed with what you thought you knew?
I don't know if anything clashed. I think her family dynamic really informed who she is and why she became who she is right now. Her family was definitely a household where [the message] was, Be seen and be heard. So she walked out of the house with a voice. I can understand where her confidence comes from — from her parents. I think her mom should write a parenting book. Seriously. Her brother's book, "Game of Character," really helped me see their family dynamic. Also, she was told no a lot, that she wouldn't get into Princeton, and Princeton wasn't for her. She constantly fought against people who told her that she couldn't do certain things. So I think it just validated how she became who she is today.
When she and Barack were at Sidley Austin, I think there were maybe one or two other black lawyers?
That too. She was surrounded by white men, mostly. That's why she was also reluctant to date a co-worker because she had to constantly prove herself. She had her own path. It wasn't about Barack Obama. That's part of it that I love.
When you were putting together this performance, people were going to recognize the character you're playing today. Do you try to do something that approximates the way in which she talks and is seen, or do you try to do something totally independent? Where do those two things come up against each other?
I didn't want to mock her. I didn't want it to be an SNL skit. I did get a dialect coach. I think her voice is very important. It's very distinct and you know when you hear it, it's her. She's very hard on her words and she curves them very much. When she does it she's very passionate about it. She's like Barack. So it's just being on top of every word. She stuck with me for a while afterward and I had to kind of get her out of me. But I had a great dialect coach.
When you watched her at the Democratic National Convention, do you start hearing yourself?
What I did feel was that I felt like I knew her. I felt like I played that younger woman who became that woman who spoke at the DNC. So I was kind of screaming up and down like, [gasps] Did I do this right? I hope she likes the way I portrayed her because I felt like I did it justice of who she led up to be.
Will you ever find out if the President and Michelle see it?
I'm sure if they've seen it, and if they liked it, they'll definitely reach out to us. And I hope so. I feel like there's a lot of integrity and heart in the film and people connect to it.
This movie premiered at Sundance and was incredibly well-received. Now it's in theaters and people are starting to see it. So it's been a little bit of a miracle at every step of its way.
Every step. It's the little indie that could. Michael Moore — I saw him the other day — he was like, I loved your movie. I'm putting it in two of my theaters in Michigan. Lupita Nyong'o just Instagrammed about it. And then just the people are loving it. So I feel like we did something right.
Speaking of little miracles, I see you've got one inside you.
Yes! She's coming soon so I'm really excited. And I'm excited that she'll be able to one day see her mom play this strong character. And hopefully just be really proud that she has somebody like me or like Michelle Obama or just so many women around the world to look up to.