As the clock winds down on his presidency, there’s already a large void forming in our hearts over the departure of Barack Obama. The charismatic leader of the United States has shaped a lot of people’s childhoods and adulthoods, and now we face an uncertain future between two candidates that many would agree have their own, largely problematic, issues. So it’s fitting that writer/director Richard Tanne’s upcoming Southside With You takes the audience back to the formative years of our soon to be ex-president—depicting the first date between Barack and Michelle.
Set in 1989, the movie eerily mirrors our own current day predicaments—with the backdrop of racial unrest being framed by Spike Lee’s pop culture phenomenon Do The Right Thing, a movie that made everyone in the country look at their neighbor a little differently. Long before Barack and Michelle were #RelationshipGoals to everyone, they had to deal with the scrutiny of being young, gifted, and black in an all-white workplace, a struggle that hits close to home throughout the movie. No, Southside doesn’t attempt to cash in on the Obama name, it provides a balanced commentary on two young, black people who are yearning to become something greater and just so happen to find each other. Ahead of the movie's release, we talked to Tika Sumpter (who is currently starring in The Haves and Have Nots on OWN) and up-and-coming actor Parker Sawyers about the pressure of playing the FLOTUS and POTUS, defining Michelle’s character, and how important it was to capture the time period in Southside With You.
A lot of people may be skeptical of Southside With You because it only captures Barack and Michelle’s first date. What's so important about this moment?
Tika Sumpter: [The movie takes place in 1989], so there was enough time to research and have a perspective. If we were to [set the movie in present day] it would be too early. He’s still in office. That’s a grand, sweeping thing. Somebody will do that story, but we wanted to give a slice of their lives. [Director Richard Tanne] was inspired by their flirtation, and their connection. That’s not normal with politicians who are married—they usually look forced or awkward. He was like, “What is that?” and once he read about the origins of their relationship he decided that this was the story.
Did you two feel any pressure playing THE Barack and Michelle Obama?
Parker Sawyers: I think both of us did at first, but when we both dug into the characters and dug into the story—you just sort of forget about who you’re playing and the pressures of people doubting you. Once you get into the story of a dude who has a hole in his car, and you ask, “Why does he have a hole in his car? He went to Harvard,” you lose yourself.
What are some things you picked up on in researching how they move, and act?
Sawyers: The mannerisms, the speech pattern. When I was researching, I recall David Axelrod saying that one of the reasons why [Barack] was voted for editor of Law Review was because he really did listen to each side. That creates a calm persona. Like when Michelle breaks him down in the movie—most people would be like, “Yeah, whatever,” but [Barack] says “You think I’m cute?” Because to him he’s like, “Let me explain to you why it’s going to work.”
Did you add that smoothness to his character?
Parker: Yeah, but he already is a smooth talker. Remember when he said, “I don’t have any more campaigns to run in my life,” and the crowd cheers and then he says [Impersonating Barack.] “I know that because I won both of them.”
A lot of people have preconceived notions about the background of Michelle, and Barack in general. Do you think the movie will change that?
Sumpter: I don’t think it’s a political movie per se, but the movie humanizes them and it may make them more lovable to some people.
In the movie, Michelle is torn between her job and the advances of Barack, and she acts kind of cold...
Sumpter: You think she’s cold? [Laughs.] I think she’s reluctant to date someone she’s above at work. It’s 1989, she’s at a law firm, surrounded by mostly white men, and she has to prove herself every day. So, this hotshot comes in, and she doesn’t want to be overlooked. She wants to be taken seriously. She probably liked him, but she’s like, “That’s really weird.” Little by little, he won her over.
He broke her down...
Sumpter: Yes! But here’s the thing with that: I think people are so used to women giving in so fast.
Especially in movies.
Sumpter: We’re crying in a corner within the first 30 minutes. Or we’re like, “I love you! Let’s get married!” It’s so refreshing to see somebody take their time, get to know someone, and make a decision.
Having Michelle be in the forefront is a very progressive choice because she’s a person that many young, African-American women look up to. When you approached the character, did you want to make sure that her strength was still prevalent in your performance?
Sumpter: A lot of the times we don’t see enough of it. Imagery is obviously a large part of it. I think it’s important to see her passion, her complexity, and to see her be challenged. Whether it’s about forgiveness, or wanting to do more, it’s what it is.