Film: Sundance Film Festival
Movie about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date takes the frame off the official portrait to paint a tender picture of two people falling in love
By Katherine Monk
PARK CITY, UT — There’s a good chance this year’s Sundance Film Festival will be defined by a larger, and perhaps more honest, discussion about race in America. And if it is, we can look at Richard Tanne’s debut feature Southside With You as a beautiful example of a paradigm shift.
It’s not just an accessible romance starring two rising African-American stars in Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers, it’s a fictionalized take on the first date between would-be First Lady Michelle Robinson and a young Harvard law student named Barack Obama.
We knew the two met at a corporate law firm. We knew she was his advisor. And we knew she wasn’t eager to get involved with a junior, fearing it would erode her professional edge and play into white expectation.
The rest became the subject of speculation, and in some circles, cynicism: That these two power hitters were a black version of the Clintons, strategizing to take the White House from the moment they met.
But that’s what makes Tanne’s debut such a tender, and supremely human experience. The film, shot entirely on location in Chicago, retraces the steps of that first encounter, starting as a friendly meeting between peers, and ending in a first kiss outside an ice cream parlour.
Southside With You is the kind of movie Hollywood used to make with stars such as Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant: a talker with attractive people discussing ideas, ambitions and larger world views.
The fact that we’re watching two characters who would eventually make history is the proverbial cherry on top of a sweet sundae, because the real victory of Southside With You is the way it transcends politics, and brings everything back down to people struggling to understand each other.
“This started because I was just inspired by the love story,” said Sumpter after the film’s world premiere Sunday.
“I wanted to see that kind of love up there. It’s not the normal rom-com, you know. It’s real conversations of what might have been said. I was inspired by Richard and told him that I want to play Michelle Robinson, but if I can’t, it’s okay. I just want to get this movie made.”
Tanne said it was Sumpter who became the film’s guardian angel, eventually coming on as star and producer. “She backed me as a first-time filmmaker,” said the director, adding Sumpter’s fire was just another affirmation that she was the right person for the role.
With the role of Michelle in place, the only thing left was to find the man who would be king. They cast a wide net, and found Sawyers through a videotaped audition. According to Tanne, the tape was awful.
“He was doing an imitation of Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama, which was exactly what we weren’t looking for… but there was something in his eyes. And when we told him you’re just a guy trying to get a girl, he got it and sent another tape and that’s essentially the performance you’re seeing on screen.”
Sawyers said he cringes now when he watches that first tape. “I was even moving like a 50-year-old.”
Yet, after a long rehearsal period, and some production backing from the likes of John Legend, the film went to camera in Chicago, and replayed the events that brought Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson together, from an art gallery tour to watching Do the Right Thing.
“Ninety percent of the trajectory is accurate,” said Tanne. “But this is a fictionalized account, so I just tried to be as authentic as possible.”
And from this critic’s perspective, it’s a sweet seduction for the viewer, because we really do get a sense of what drew these two dynamic people together, as well as the inherent — largely veiled — prejudice they faced in their daily lives.
Most importantly, we believe in these two characters and we like them. We feel the intimacy between them, which isn’t something we typically get from people in political life, who are often forced to become symbols of ideas, or rhetorical piñatas.
It’s such a flattering portrait, you almost think it could have come out of a PR firm, but according to everyone involved, the Obamas had nothing to do with the film. “They are actually baffled by its existence,” said Tanne. “But we hope they can come to a screening later in the week…” he added, hopefully.
Sumpter said the point of making the movie wasn’t to affirm any partisan stance.
“I think ultimately what I wanted to see is someone who looked like me fall in love up there. It’s a love story. I think everyone can relate to that. It’s not Republican or Democrat. It’s a love story.”
THE EX-PRESS, January 24, 2016