Southside With You: Richard Tanne’s Directorial Debut–Barack and Michelle Obama First Date

Inspired by Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, Southside With You recounts the eventful summer day in 1989, when a charming young law associate named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) tries to woo reluctant attorney Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) during a daylong date that takes them from an art exhibit to a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing to a sweet first kiss outside of a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlor.
Inspired by accounts of the first couple’s first date, Richard Tanne’s romantic and intimate directorial debut Southside With You brings audiences along for the ride as charming first-year law associate Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) takes reluctant attorney Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) on a daylong excursion in and around Chicago’s South Side.

It takes some coaxing for Barack to persuade Michelle, his advisor at the firm, to join him in a whirlwind of activities on a hot day in Chicago, summer of 1989. Michelle, a career-oriented, Ivy League-educated attorney and the only black woman at her firm, has her guard up against even a whiff of perceived impropriety. The last thing she wants is for her superiors to judge the firm’s two African-American colleagues for unprofessional behavior.

Barack agrees in theory, but his profound attraction to Michelle trumps caution. And he’s self-confident enough to believe he can remain professional and capture her heart at the same time. His all-out attempt to win her affection includes a visit to an art exhibit, a rousing community meeting he leads at a South Side church, and a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Although the pair have no inkling they will someday make history together, the fact that the date marks the first spark of romance between the future first couple makes this sweet and inspiring love story all the more poignant.

Starting with a Glance

For first-time writer-director Tanne, South s ide With You started with a glance. A glance between Michelle and Barack Obama, that is. “There’s something special about the way the president and the first lady look at each other, and it’s something we’ve seen since the beginning of their rise to prominence,” Tanne says. “Their connection seems authentic and deep and vibrant. That’s a rare thing in life, and I think it’s an even rarer thing for public figures.”

Tanne recalls seeing accounts of Michelle and Barack’s first date during the 2008 presidential campaign. “They talked about it a lot in both presidential campaigns,” Tanne recalls. “Michelle wasn’t interested at first, and Barack had to win her over. By the end of the first date, he had done just that. It just felt like the perfect conflict for a movie.”

Opportunity to Prove himself on One Day

But it wasn’t until years later that Tanne fell in love himself — an experience that brought him the understanding he felt was necessary to tell the story. “I realized it wasn’t just kind of a meetcute story about falling in love,” Tanne observes. “It was also about finding that person who makes you a better version of yourself.” Tanne was drawn to the idea of Michelle Robinson giving Barack Obama one opportunity to prove himself. “By all accounts, that’s how it happened in real life,” he says. “She was willing to give him one day. So in the movie you have two characters who are stuck together for a day. They have no one to turn to, think about or talk to, except each other.”

Tanne hopes the movie shines a light on the depth of feeling even new love can inspire. “It’s not always only a physical attraction and an intellectual attraction. It can also be a deeply emotional one. You are finding that person who can hold up a mirror and show you who you are and who you can be. I think these two characters do that for each other. They’re a team, and they’re a partnership. They elevate each other.” South s ide With You producer Tika Sumpter first learned about the project when she heard Tanne wanted her to play the role of Michelle. He gave her a one-page handwritten outline he’d completed in 2013. “I thought the perspective was something we hadn’t seen,” Sumpter says. “I met with Richard right away. Once he turned in the script to me, I was blown away. That was it — it became a passion.” Although she admits she’s most comfortable as an actor, once she took on the role of producer, Sumpter says she told Tanne: “‘I don’t care if I play Michelle or not.’ My main goal was to get the film made.” While details of the couple’s conversations are fictionalized, the events depicted in the film really happened. The couple attended an art exhibition, went to see Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, enjoyed a picnic lunch, went out for a drink and even visited Baskin-Robbins for chocolate ice cream, Michelle’s favorite flavor. Tanne learned about the date through a variety of news articles as well as a video he saw of the couple recounting their first date.

Departures from Actuality
Only one event included in the onscreen date — a community organizing meeting at which Obama delivers an eloquent speech — took place later in the couples’ early courtship and in a different South Side location than was selected for the movie.  The film makes no acknowledgement of the historic heights the young couple will go on to achieve. “I never had the urge to foreshadow or to wink,” Tanne says, “because what was appealing to me was who the president and first lady were as people before they became the icons we know today. They both have a kind of modern rags-to-riches story. They both have led very inspirational lives, and this seemed to be a fascinating entry point into those lives because they weren’t fully formed yet.”

Tanne also purposely avoids delving into the Obamas’ political leanings. “It’s not my job to tell anyone how to feel about who they are now,” he says. “People are going to come to this movie with their own politics, their own relationship to the president, the first lady and the Obama administration. My concern is just to make this a credible love story between these two people.” With a laugh, Sumpter admits she underestimated the role of producer on a film. “I was naïve,” she says. “I didn’t know what producing entailed other than getting something made. I didn’t know I’d be doing the nuts and bolts of it. But even though my first love is acting, I like putting things together.” Because of the positive experience, Sumpter adds this will probably not be her last time in the producer’s chair.  Veteran producer Robert Teitel never questioned Tanne or Sumpter’s ability to get the job done. “When I first met Rich, I remember telling him: ‘I think you were born to do this movie,” he says. “I sensed very early on that the film had been completed in his head for such a long time. There’s nobody but Rich who could tackle it. And it was Tika’s passion that got this film made. She was definitely the driving force.”

Even with a short 18-day shooting schedule, Teitel says Tanne was able to come in on time and on budget. One reason was the director’s insistence that the actors memorize and rehearse lengthy scenes before production began, which they did — sometimes across continents — with the aid of Skype. “They did it like a play, in a sense,” Teitel explains. “So where a typical shooting schedule might cover two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half pages of dialogue per day, Tanne would cover eight to 10 pages.”

For his part, Sawyers felt a connection to Barack Obama long before portraying him became a possibility. Before deciding to become an actor, he had considered pursuing a career in local government and worked as a lobbyist. He also credits Obama for solidifying his own decision to commit to acting at the relatively advanced age of 27.  Back in 2006, Sawyers read Obama’s 1995 autobiographical book Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. He was struck by a passage about how the future president made his decision to become a lawyer, deciding the best way to improve society was gaining the ability to change the law.
“In that part of the book it was like he was saying: ‘So I thought I’d just go to Harvard,’ like it was the easiest thing in the world,” Sawyers observes. “In my career, I’ve been acting for five years only. I had no training whatsoever — I’d never even done a school play. But because I read that in 2006, I thought: I’ll just act, and go to Hollywood, like Obama decided to go to Harvard. It was insane, but it worked out.”

Casting the First Couple:
While Richard Tanne knew early on that Sumpter was his Michelle Robinson, finding an actor to play Barack Obama was more complicated. “I needed somebody who could play intellectual and weighty, somebody who could play goofy, who could play charming and also somebody who could play a little arrogant — and be able to alternate between all of those things on a dime.”

Parker Sawyers

Sawyers wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. But Sawyers’ agent, who also represented another actor being considered for the role, suggested the filmmakers take a look at the newcomer. No one questioned the young actors’ uncanny physical resemblance to Obama, but it took two video auditions for Sawyers to win the role over roughly three dozen other candidates. “His original audition was a very good but mimic-y impersonation of the president,” says Tanne, “and that’s really what we weren’t looking for. We wanted someone to really bring himself to the part. I just told Parker to get the president out of his mind. I told him: ‘You are just a guy trying to get a date with this girl.’  The next day he sent in a new tape that was pretty much the performance you see in the movie.” Sawyers recalls speaking with Rich two hours before he recorded his second audition video. “I just relaxed into it — this is a person, this is not the president. This is a 28-year-old red-blooded man, who is extremely smart but really has a crush on this woman he is working with and allows himself to feel like a teenager, but one who speaks like a 28-year-old and carries himself like a 35 year-old. He’s got a lot of layers.”

Sawyers, who, like Obama, is married with two children, moved with his family to London in 2008. He grew up in a Republican household in Indianapolis, Indiana. Despite the difference in politics from the Obamas, his parents, local politician Paula Parker-Sawyers and teacher and community leader James Sawyers, shared Barack and Michelle’s commitment to public service. “The social conscience they instilled in me helped with the speech he gives in the movie,” Sawyers says. “I could connect to that for sure.”

Tika Sumpter as the Young Michelle Robinson

With far less of a physical resemblance to her character than Sawyers had to his, Sumpter had to find a different way to convey the persona of the young Michelle Robinson. “Parker has this essence that I think is naturally Barack,” says the actress. “I didn’t want to imitate Michelle, but I studied the way she enunciates every single word — she is very precise. She has this cautious way about her. She doesn’t want to be overwhelmed with this hotshot guy who is coming into the firm. And being a black woman at a law firm in 1989 — we were dealing with a lot of stuff for her.” Sumpter adds slyly: “Barack wasn’t her only option, either.”

To prepare for the role, Sumpter read A Game of Character, the 2010 book by Michelle’s older brother, basketball coach Craig Robinson, which gave her an intimate look at the Robinson family. Instead of focusing on the first lady’s TV appearances, she watched recordings of Michelle’s speeches at various colleges. “I felt like she let her guard down in those speeches,” Sumpter says. The actors say their dynamic on set was much like that of Barack and Michelle in the movie, with Sumpter concentrating on her work and Sawyers doing his best to get her attention with his antics. “I’m pretty happy go lucky in general,” Sawyers says. “She was quite serious — focused, I should say. I focus in a different way. We have incredible chemistry. I tease her a lot. Two days into rehearsals in Chicago she was like, ‘You don’t turn off, do you?’ Nope. I’m always on!” Sumpter agrees. “We had this crazy relationship,” she says. She chuckles at Sawyers’ complaint that she didn’t always respond to his attempts at humor, the same way Michelle sometimes rolls her eyes at Barack’s obvious attempts to be charming in the film. “I laugh all the time — but if it’s not funny, I’m not laughing.”


Southside with You


Tika Sumpter (Get On Up, “Bessie”), Parker Sawyers (Zero Dark Thirty, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Vanessa Bell Calloway (Coming To America, What’s Love Got to Do With It). The film is written and directed by Richard Tanne (You Never Left, “Cinema Cool”). Producers are Robert Teitel (Soul Food, Barbershop), Tika Sumpter and Richard Tanne. Executive producers are Stuart Ford, Glendon Palmer, Matt Jackson,  John Legend, Mike Jackson, Carrie Holt De Lama, Tracey Bing, Zanne Devine and Rosanne Korenberg. Patrick Scola (A Beautiful Now, Here Build Your Homes) is director of photography. Production designer is Lucio Seixas (Never Forever, The Sleepwalker). Film editor is Evan Schiff (Everly, The Time Being). Costume designer is Megan Spatz (Unexpected, American Fable). Music is by Stephen James Taylor (Maya Angelou and Still I Rise, Phantom Punch). Tracy “Twinkie” Bird (Fruitvale Station, Jumping the Broom) is casting director.