Barack and Michelle’s First Date in “Southside With You”
When Tika Sumpter first met writer/director Richard Tanne she was immediately taken by his proposal for a movie about the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson.
“The story was two paragraphs when I first saw it. He told me the vision for the film, and said I want you to play Michelle,” Sumpter tells Free Press Houston in an interview.
Sumpter, who also produced Southside With You with Tanne and Robert Teitel, was in town last week promoting the film along with her co-star Parker Sawyers (Obama).
“I helped encourage him to write, I took it to my agent, I was pitching a first time director, which is tough; people don’t want to take a chance,” Sumpter says.
Sawyers, who was cast later in pre-production, noted that Tanne advised him to “Let go of the impersonation and just be a guy trying to date a girl in the summertime. Be the character in the script.”
Southside With You starts with Barack and Michelle, both associates at a prestigious Chicago law firm, going to an art exhibit featuring the paintings of Ernie Barnes. Barnes was known for his unique style and his painting The Sugar Shack was used in the television show Good Times as well as the cover of the Marvin Gaye LP I Want You.
The two subsequently go to a community meeting followed by beer at a local bar, then a movie – Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing – ice cream and a good night kiss. But the path isn’t that simple. Michelle doesn’t want to really date Barack because they work together. He’s a chain smoker and she doesn’t dig cigarettes.
“She was a second year associate, focused on her career,” says Sumpter. “Her parents smoked once in a while and she and her brother were afraid they would get cancer so they would go rip up their cigarettes,” adds Sumpter citing Craig Robinson’s book A Game of Character as her source for the latter fact. Craig in addition to being the brother of FLOTUS is a well-known college basketball coach and author.
In Southside With You a pivotal sequence shows Barack addressing an ad hoc meeting in a church and making an eloquent speech inspiring the listeners on how to properly raise funds to build a community center. The film hinges on this scene because it shows Michelle opening up to Barack’s ability to communicate, but it also draws the audience into the movie. Afterwards the viewer feels the movie has something important to say.
The community meeting scene took one-and-a-half days to shoot. “My first day after flying in, Rich and I blocked that scene out, so I practiced it for a couple of weeks before it was time to shoot it,” says Sawyers.
Southside With You uses real locations that were part of that awakening romance including the public housing project Altgeld Gardens.
“There was a lot of support from the community, they wanted this film to succeed,” Sumpter says. “It’s a film with integrity and hopefully they enjoy seeing themselves.”
Southside With You opens in area theaters this weekend.