The new film Southside With You, now in theaters, presents a novel twist on the tried-and-true “date movie” genre by presenting a fictionalized account of the first date between Barack and Michelle Obama as imagined by writer/director Richard Tanne.
Long before entering the White House for two terms was even a blink in either of their eyes, they were two bright and vivacious up-and-comers in the Chicago legal scene, and the film’s charming tale of two people discovering they’re perfect for each would be engaging even if we didn’t know the real world history that was to unfold following the end credits.
Playing the future First Couple are actors Tika Sumpter (who also produced the film) and Parker Sawyers, and they’re easy chemistry both onscreen and off helps make Southside With You such a pleasing diversion. I had a chance to talk to the pair during their recent swing through San Francisco, and here are some excerpts of our conversation:
Tika, you’ve been involved since the inception of the project. Why this story?
Tika: For me, it was the script. It had heart. It was charming. It was smart. At first I only saw the synopsis, and I thought whoever wrote the synopsis is really smart. The perspective is really cool. And to see, we know who they are now but what was the origin of that? What could it have been? That was interesting to me. And I just thought, it was a cool leading lady role.
Someone who is complex and confident. And it wasn’t a romantic film where a woman is chasing after a guy. But she’s actually the prize. And that they’re walking in each others’ shoes and they’re seeing themselves through somebody else. I just thought there was a lot there, and I wanted to do it. So I wanted to create it and make it happen.
Parker, what’s your initial reaction to this script? Are you overwhelmed by how to portray this character or are you excited by the possibility?
Parker: My initial reaction when I got the script, I didn’t understand it. Like, I didn’t know how this would be made in 2015. I thought, I was like, “Man, they’re just talking or walking but there’s no conflict.” But then, as I dug further, and one of the greatest things about the project as an actor is that we had to find nuances in a three, four page dialogue where we’re just walking and talking. I said, “Well where’s the conflict? Where’s the turn? The give and the pull and the push?”
And then I fell more in love with it just as an exercise in acting. But as far as playing the president, or the future president, I don’t know. If you just focus on the script and focus on who they are, 28 and 25. Lawyer, law student. They have so many things going on already that that’s all I have to focus on. “Oh, I have to study to make sure my school loans are in order. I have to clean my house before my grandmother comes.” That kind of thing. “And then I got to go pick up this girl and I got to make a good impression.”
So then, yeah, then the pressure is a little off because you’re just focusing on the guy.
Obviously the Obamas exist as sort of larger than life figures. What did you learn about them that is not necessarily as well known?
Tika: I didn’t know that Michelle’s family was as close as they were. I didn’t know that she, in high school, she went to this magnet high school kind of thing. And I didn’t know that somebody told her that Princeton wasn’t for her. She modeled too. People in Chicago, everybody has that Obama or Michelle story. They’re like, “I used to see her running every morning.”
And she didn’t wear a lot of makeup and her hair was just pulled back and just the simplicity of these two people who, they didn’t know they were going to, well I don’t think, they didn’t know they were going to get to this level of things. And I don’t know if she even wanted to get to that.
And how can you even imagine that, “Oh, one day…”
Tika: That’s such a big dream. I’m sure they had big dreams but that’s like…
That’s the biggest.
Tika: You’re running in the morning in the South Side and it’s like, “Oh yeah, presidency.” You’re not really probably thinking about that. But it was the simple things about her family. I think one story in A Game of Character, that her brother wrote, is her mom and dad, here and there would smoke cigarettes together and they didn’t like that.
They were afraid of losing their parents to a cigarette, cancer or whatever. And they went and smashed up all of their cigarettes and everything like that. Just little stories like that informed me about who they were. Just family.
Parker: Yeah, for me it’s family as well, for Barack Obama. And well, the absence of a family, like a foundation, I suppose. How he moved around from Hawaii to Indonesia and back to Hawaii. Went to school at Occidental and then to Columbia and essentially was by himself. And I think he, I believe he said Columbia, you just sat inside and read books. And really just escaped.
But such a formidable person came out of that that it’s fascinating to me like just the brain that must have been, like a self-correcting, a self-acquisition, a self-psychiatrist almost. Self-therapeutic. Just sort of, “Alright, well who am I and how do I turn that into something good?”
That’s the insight that I found in a young Barack Obama which explains who he is now and explains why he can walk around so confident at 28 and talk to this girl. And so and I wanted to root his confidence and charisma in something. Not just because he’s…
Parker: …cocky and arrogant but in college he’s like, “No, I can do this. I can do that. I can do this. I can do this. Therefore, I’m all right.” That kind of thing.
The juxtaposition I experienced was as I was driving in I’m listening to the news of the day and there’s Donald Trump saying Obama founded ISIS, and then I watch this film and it’s just lovely. And I’m like, where does this come from? What is this disconnect between these quadrants of the electorate? How is it that this one person can be seen so differently?
Parker: There, in the film especially, the absence of privilege is prevalent. It’s just right in front of you. The hole in the car. Euclid Avenue. Very nice street for her to grow up on but it’s not, I just left Martha’s Vineyard yesterday. We had a screening there. And the opulence of it is like — people vacation.
They “summer” there, as verb, growing up. And so, the absence of that and seeing these two on top of race relations back in ’89 and still to this day. You think about all that, and these people made it out. Or, not made it out, but they made it up and up and further up and further up. I think it’s inspiring.
Tika: But also the fact that they didn’t have to go back. They didn’t have to help. They went to Harvard Law. They could have just, they chose to serve the public. They chose to come back and serve the public and not just sit in these high-rises and make all this money. I mean they just recently paid off their student loans eight years ago. So it’s like, they didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to come back.
Parker: There are some people in certain schools who almost expect to be president and expect to be senator. Or their family expects them to be. And I think Barack and Michelle, and Barack obviously became president, I think he thought that he almost had to as a duty because he probably considered himself still quite lucky. I don’t think there was a war that he had to have, like he didn’t have to dodge a draft or anything. He was probably just like, “I’ve had it pretty good.”
Parker: And I feel like they’re the disconnect, like I don’t know how you can see, or even in the film when you say we’re just basically like a threat of states. Just trying, at everybody’s core, there’s a good person. Like we just want the basic things in life. And, I just don’t see where that connection of this, he’s almost demonized now. And I think at the basis of his foundation, he really thinks people are good people.
And you see that reflected in the film, in the community organizing speech. I think for me, when I look at the presidency of Barack Obama, I look at my kids who, my oldest is nine. And so for him, he’s not “The Black President.” He’s just the president. And I love that for them, their experience moving forward forever is that’s not a thing.
That’s what my daughter said. And she, it’s funny I got the role. We live in London and I got the role. It was last year. And everybody around the neighbor was like, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh.” My wife’s optometrist cried. He was just so happy. He’s Indian-British.
But my daughter didn’t understand. And I had to explain to her, “Oh, well he’s president of the United States.” She says, “Yeah, I know.” “The first black president.” And she’s like, “Okay.” But I explained American history and so forth. She says “Oh, wow, good job daddy!” But to her…
Tika: It’s normal.
Parker: And then when Hillary gets in, my daughter will also see a female president.
Many thanks to Tika & Parker for their time. Southside With You is now playing in select theaters, and I highly recommend seeking it out. To hear the audio from this conversation, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:
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