Before the 2008 presidential election, before Barack and Michelle Obama were catapulted into the cultural zeitgeist, the romantic dramedy “Southside With You” takes us back to 1989 for a hot summer day in the southside of Chicago, Illinois. The year in which second-year law associate Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) — a new intern at her law firm — fatefully met.
Determined to get to know her, Barack invites Michelle to a local community event. With a cigarette in his hand and beaten steering wheel in another, he arrives late to Michelle’s house. Michelle is initially skeptical of Barack’s intentions, but with Barack’s smooth moves — still on display after all of these years — and Michelle’s willingness to open up, their day together eventually becomes a romantic, history-in-the-making first date.
Filmed more than a year ago, with a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, “Southside With You” is finally opening to the public eye Friday, and it’s been nothing but a surreal experience for both Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. “This has been a wild in-the-making,” said Sumpter in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I was just telling Parker … ‘Can you believe we’re sitting here talking about this movie?’ ”
“For me, it’s kind of easy to talk about because I believe in it so much and I think it’s so beautiful. Every screening I’ve been in, the experience seems to be the same: they’re smiling, they just feel good,” Sawyers said.
This warm take on two of the most powerful people in the world is what made Tika Sumpter instantly sign on to the film as an executive producer and lead once director Richard Tanne approached her with a synopsis. She so thoroughly believed in the script from day one that she remained heavily involved throughout the film.
The script, especially the dialogue between the two characters, has so much life. It isn’t overbearing with Barack or Michelle impersonations. Rather, it has substance that expands and allows the characters to grow. It’s unusually witty, which is something that’s rarely made. “I just think their origin story is complex and sweet and I just think (Tanne) did a great job at writing something surrounded by historic (events), or the events that took place of their first date,” said Sumpter.
“Southside With You” gives viewers an incredibly detailed insight on who Barack and Michelle Obama were as individuals before they met. Viewers get to see the Obamas with fresh eyes and learn more about who they were from their home life, personal struggles and career discovery. For instance, Barack’s character speaks out about his resistance to forgive his father because of his absence during his childhood. Background details about the film’s protagonists not only intrigue viewers — such as how Michelle lived at home taking care of her father, while Barack lived in an apartment on his own — but also attracted Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers to get involved.
“For me, the humble beginnings, the absence of privilege and what that represents as far as their journey of who we know now today,” Sawyers cited as the appeal of the story. “Just to understand where they came from, to really dig deep and act it out I suppose. It really drives home just how far they’ve come and just how inspiring they are as leaders in our society.”
With a budget of only $1.5 million dollars, “Southside With You” did an exceptional job with its production and overall cinematic quality. “I think, for the budget, we did a really good job to make it feel the production value was there and everything like that,” said Sumpter. Everything from the costume to set design is scarily authentic to the story. Parker Sawyers explained how the set designer, Lucio Seixas, went the extra mile to truly capture the essence of Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama’s life in 1989. From Barack’s car to the bras hanging in Michelle’s bathroom, it is evident that the production designers on “Southside With You” did their research. The way the camera filmed characters’ surroundings made every aspect of the film feel connected. Whether it was a frame of the hole in Barack’s car or his mixed tape, everything had a reason for why it was there.
As an independent film, the crew also had more freedom navigating what they wanted to do while preserving Tanne’s original vision. “Obviously you always want more money, but sometimes with money comes somebody else’s vision, and it changes it a lot,” she added. “My job was to fight for (Tanne’s) vision because I believed in it so much.”
The film demonstrates the power of having strong roles for people of color and women, something still lacking in cinema. In “Southside with You,” the characters continuously reveal layers and depth uncommon in traditional romantic dramedies. “Obviously, I want you to see me, I want you to see my color because my color has a story. I want you to see my history, but I don’t want that to define the whole movie like it’s a ‘Black’ film,” said Sumpter. “Hopefully it’ll open up a door for other people to create content that they care about so that people can see imagery of themselves.”
Despite the film being based on the Obamas, “Southside With You” remains unbiased to fit within a political party’s ideals. The film’s greatest strength lies in that it is just a love story of two people who are massively popular. They’re people we know, but we don’t care about their affiliations — we only care about their blossoming relationship. “That’s why I say, ‘If you can take off your guards of whatever political stance you hold, it’s ultimately a story about two human beings just getting to know each other,’ ” said Sumpter.
“Southside With You” opens tonight at Shattuck Cinemas.
Contact Maybelle Caro at [email protected].