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Barack and Michelle Obama have been America’s First Couple going on eight years now. Even before Obama became a two term president, the couple were pillars in the community. Barack’s rise from Illinois Senator represented hope and change among voters who for the first time saw not only a viable African-American presidential candidate, but a political thinker employing calm reasoning in the face of polarized opposition.

This election year, the battle between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump for President has made even more citizens appreciate what the Obamas represent. Even if Clinton wins, her marital troubles were the source of news during her husband Bill Clinton’s presidency. Trump is twice divorced, and even those who agree with his policies may shudder at his bullying approach.

A new movie hopes to give people some inside into the relationship between Barack and Michelle Obama. Southside With You is the story of Barack and Michelle’s first date. Tika Sumpter plays Michelle and Parker Sawyers plays Barack. The year was 1989 and both were working at a law office while he was at Harvard Law. Barack spent a day showing Michelle (then Michelle Robinson) around the south side of Chicago. Southside
For Sumpter, Southside with You is a political movie but not with regards to Obama policy. It is important for African-Americans to be represented equally on film, and there are very few love stories showing African-Americans falling in love.

“Whatever else you take away from it is sugar on top but I think ultimately, I wanted to see someone who looked like me falling in love up there [on the screen],” Sumpter said. “And I think everybody can relate to that automatically. It’s just a love story. It’s not republican/democrat, anything else. It’s just a love story.”

Future President Barack Obama is the role of a lifetime for Sawyers, and one hell of a debut. The relative newcomer had background roles in films like Zero Dark Thirty and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, but Southside with You is his first lead role. Though American, Sawyers hoped to use his anonymity to his advantage.

“I live outside the country so nobody knew me,” Sawyers said. “I just imagined that everybody thought I would suck anyway. So it was really, really low. I just thought everybody thinks I’m gonna fail so then I’ll just try my hardest, and I did. So there wasn’t much pressure.”
Southside Set
The search for the right Barack Obama was brief but intense. Sumpter was cast first as Michelle. Since she was also a producer of the film, Sumpter was involved in screening potential Barack actors. Sawyers almost blew it on his first audition for writer/director Richard Tanne.

“We actually had a fairly short casting process,” Tanne said. “[Sumpter] and I put our heads together and we put together a list of about 30 actors. Parker actually came in through a taped audition. His initial idea was an impersonation of Commander in Chief Obama. That was exactly what we weren’t looking for. A lot of folks were coming in doing that impersonation. [She] actually said, ‘Turn the volume off on his audition and give it another look.’ I did and I looked into his eyes and I saw that there was definitely more there. We actually had a call and as I said, ‘You’re just a guy trying to get a girl,’ He’s like, ‘Okay, I got it. I’m getting off the phone. New tape’s coming in tomorrow.’ The new tape came in and it was essentially the performance that you see in the movie.”

Sawyers admits it took him a second try to get it right. “I’ll say my very first tape, it was a full on impersonation,” Sawyers said. “I was even moving like a 50-year-old, ‘Uh, do you want to get ice cream?’ I re-watched it and I cringed. I removed it from Vimeo. It’s gone.”
Obama Couple
The real Barack and Michelle Obama were not involved in the making of Southside with You. The information comes from public records. It is true they spent a day walking around the south side of Chicago. They saw the film Do the Right Thing, which was a landmark release in 1989. Its confronting portrayal of racial tensions started a conversation that continues nearly 30 years later. They ended the evening with ice cream at Baskin Robbins.

During the film, Barack attends a community meeting where Michelle is able to see him convince a stubborn crowd to compromise. Tanne explained how he constructed the minute to minute script and dialogue out of what was known about the Obamas’ first date.

“I pretty much just culled from the public domain,” Tanne said. “Articles, interviews, videos, just whatever I could get my hands on. Through the years I’ve been reading as many books on the Obamas as possible but the research was mostly public domain stuff. Of course, there wasn’t a note taker on the date so you just have to extrapolate from what’s there.”
Southside Scene
Specifically, the only event in question might be the community meeting. “The trajectory of the date is about 90% accurate,” Tanne said. “They went to the art institute. They had lunch afterwards. They saw Do the Right Thing. They had ice cream. They kissed outside the ice cream parlor, at Baskin Robbins. So many of the locations and those areas, we are in the zone. There was some question as to whether or not the community organizing meeting happened on the first date or if it just happened early in the courtship. Dramatically it worked so I put it in. Again, it’s a fictionalized account so I tried to be as authentic as possible.”

The film itself began without a script. Tanne had written a synopsis of how a movie about Barack and Michelle’s first date would go. Sumpter got her hands on the synopsis and learned that Tanne had her eyed for the role of Michelle.

“I just saw the synopsis and I was intrigued immediately,” Sumpter said. “Just the perspective. Not seeing these two as we see them now but from before. So I was like, ‘Let’s set up a meeting.’ Rich and I, we went to lunch and he explained his vision. The script wasn’t written.”

The meeting and the synopsis gave Sumpter confidence that Tanne could elaborate a full script. Plus, he was already represented by Hollywood’s famed William Morris Agency.
Southside Date Scene
“I just knew if he was smart enough to write the synopsis that I know he’s smart enough to write a script,” Sumpter continued. “Not only that but WME is smart enough to have such an incredible writer at their agency. It started because I was just inspired by the love story. I didn’t even think of it like that [politically]. I wanted to see that kind of love up there. It’s not the normal rom-com. It’s real conversations of what might have been said and some other influences. I was just inspired by Richard. He said I said at first, ‘I want to play Michelle Robinson but if I don’t get to it’s fine. I just want to get the movie made.’ I don’t remember me saying that.”

For his  part, Tanne was sold on Sumper as well. “That’s actually one of the reasons I knew that Tika would be great to play Michelle because she had that ambition and that intelligence,” Tanne said. “It was more about let’s get this made somehow. So I said, ‘Okay, let me go write the thing. If you still like it, you can do it.’ Tika was still into it when I wrote it. It has to be said that we wouldn’t be standing here if not for Tika because she produced this. She pushed it through. She backed me as a first time filmmaker. She’s the guardian angel of the project.”
Southside Date Night Scene
Sumpter and Tanne had help though. Robert Teitel was another producer on the film, and he focused on the logistics of filming on location in Chicago. Tanne’s script has pages and pages of dialogue between Barack and Michelle that they had to film on a very short schedule.

“It was really about preproduction,” Teitel said. “The three of them, to their credit, they rehearsed like crazy because we didn’t have a lot of time to do this. I kept telling Rich, ‘Just keep rehearsing. I’ll deal with the other stuff. Just keep rehearsing.’ Like I said, they’d do seven, eight pages of dialogue a day and sometimes just one take, just all the way through. For this movie, it really was preparation. Having the crew in Chicago behind us. Obviously it’s been great to work there. Everybody kind of rallied around it so  it was a great crew. It was a good experience.”

Now the filmmakers hope the Obamas will see the film. For everyone else, they are eager to know how Southside With You resonates with viewers both political or otherwise.

“What did you take away from it?” Tanne asks his audience. “My opinion doesn’t really mean anything at this point. It’s a little embarrassing but the ambitions were pretty modest. We just wanted to tell a love story and we just wanted people to feel that and relate to it. That’s pretty much it.”

Southside with You opens August 26 in theaters. / Issue 183 - September 2018
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