“It was never Richard Tanne’s objective to write a political script. He was inspired in 2007-2008 by the look that they gave each other. He wanted to understand it,” said Tika Sumpter, who stars with Parker Sawyers in “Southside With Me,” writer-director Tanne’s film about the first date that Barack Obama had with his future wife Michelle Robinson in 1989, when both were working for a Chicago law firm. Sumpter and Sawyers stopped in Dallas recently to talk about the film.
Sumpter also served, along with Tanne, as one of the movie’s producers. “From the beginning I knew that I wanted to do it and help get it made. I saw a synopsis of it, which was basically two paragraphs, and it was so well-written that I thought I had to meet the writer. The script wasn’t even written, but his perspective and vision were so clear that I thought it was amazing—taking two people whom everyone knows almost everything about, but you didn’t see them when they were twenty-five and twenty-eight years old, going back to the origin story of why they look at each other like that.
“It’s also two roles that any actors would want to play, so rich and fulfilling. We don’t always get offered these kinds of roles. I knew that this was an opportunity to show a different side of me.
“Obviously in order to do this,” Sumpter continued, “we had to get the Barack correct or it would not work. It was all about that casting. There were names being thrown out, and where studios sometimes mess up is that a name doesn’t necessarily mean money…”
“Tom Hanks tried for it,” Sawyers interjected.
“…but when we saw the tape of Parker,” Sumpter continued after the laughter had died down, “and then he came in for a screen test, everybody was speechless. All the executives were in the room, and he walked out, and I was like, ‘It’s him. He’s it.’ He was brilliant. And I feel that if we didn’t get that right, it could have been a really bad movie.”
How did the actors approach their roles? Sawyers said, “I’d been working on an impersonation for a while. I myself enjoy smooth R&B! And then this popped up, and it was more about dialing it back and being just a young man who’s in school. He doesn’t have the weight of the world on him yet, and he just wants to get to know this woman a little better. Michelle was Barack’s boss, superior, but he had the confidence to ask her out to a community meeting. [I thought about] the humble beginnings—to see how simply they lived, even with their education. I just assumed he’s an intern, he probably reads a lot in his spare time, and he had so much on his mind. Adding all of that into it, you just develop a certain posture.
“I read nothing about Michelle. He barely knows her at the office, so I didn’t want to know anything about her school or family, but wanted to learn through what was in the script. It’s so well-written that I think all we had to do was just focus on the script, and we would find out things that way. [Richard Tanne] pulled from their biographies and books in his research.”
Talking about how she saw Michelle, Sumpter said, “For me it was her reluctance at first—the fact that she was so focused on her own career. It wasn’t about this hotshot guy who came in from Harvard Law, the first black editor of the Review. I thought that was pretty amazing, because at lot of times in these romantic movies you see the woman who’s always chasing after the guy or crying in the corner, or her clothes are off in the first ten minutes and then they get to know each other afterwards. It’s refreshing that the woman is a five, and she knew she was a five, and she knew that adding him on to her greatness would make them even better.
“I had to really go back to the South Side of Chicago—who is this girl? What was her family like? Her brother’s book, ‘A Game of Character,’ really helped me. She was so focused and driven, and didn’t take people’s nonsense and incompetence.
“[So] yes, there was some research, but I think the less I knew about Barack overall, besides him being first black Harvard Law Review editor and all the hotshot stuff, it was just getting to know him as it was unfolding.”
“Southside With You” was actually shot on location, and the residents reacted enthusiastically. Sawyers recalled shouts of “Yo, Barack!” from passersby, and Sumpter said, “They were so happy we were doing it. We literally shot on the south side, and sometimes we see images of the south side of Chicago, and hear about the murder rate, but we just felt love and warmth. The people were just normal, everyday people—they’re part of that story.”
When asked whether the President and First Lady approved the project, Sumpter said with a laugh, “The blessing was that nobody shut us down—as could easily happen in Chicago! Hopefully, they’ll love it—but we did it because it was just a good script, done with integrity and love and respect.”
She added that John Legend came on as an executive producer after seeing some early footage: “When he saw it, he said that he forgot it was us and felt like he was watching Barack and Michelle. And he thought it was such a loving story, and positive, and he was inspired to write an original song and be part of the team. He’s been very encouraging and helpful.”
Sumpter emphasized again the essentially non-political character of “Southside With You,” saying, “It’s a love story, an origin story. I think a lot of people see themselves in these two. I think this story is pretty universal.”
Sawyers remembered a showing with a mixed-race audience and said, “After that screening, it wasn’t a black film, it was a film, and it wasn’t a film about two black characters, it was a film about two characters.”
Sumpter added, “People go in thinking one thing, and come out saying, ‘That was refreshing.’ I’m just proud…that it’s being loved by so many different kinds of people. That makes me feel we did something right.”