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 (portrayed by 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.
Similar to “Monster’s Ball” as being from the method of being dropped into the middle of a moment in the midst of someone’s life, in “Southside With You” we are privy to a very intimate moment of connection between the future president and first lady of the United States. We are introduced to the very raw and vulnerable moment when the chemistry is undeniable, and you’ve met a person who in one date has forever changed your life.
That’s the story of the Obamas before they were “The Obamas” and Tika Sumpter’s effectiveness as leading lady and producer make “Southside With You” a journey of romantic realism that we will swoon over for years to come.
It takes a person with a lot of guts to portray the living legend that is Michelle Obama as Tika Sumpter admitted, “It was a little nerve-racking at first. Once we were green-lit, I realized, oh my God, now I have to play her, the first lady.”
Since Michelle Obama is still living as the first lady of the United States, Sumpter decided to connect to the roots of Michelle Robinson, not Michelle Obama.
“The first thing I did was stripped her down. I didn’t focus on Michelle Obama; I focused on Michelle Robinson,” she said. “I had to figure out what connected me to her; I had to connect to her being a girl on the Southside of Chicago with a family, just like my family.”
One of the primary goals of the movie was to make the characters relatable apart from their current high profile status. Sumpter noted that making the Obamas as much like regular people was a necessary ingredient for the movie to be a success.
“I stripped away the enormity of playing Michelle Obama because this is her 20 years ago and she’s not as polished yet, it’s their human side. It shows Barack Obama smoking cigarettes; you see her in her family’s bungalow home. We know a guy like him, a girl like her and a family living in the neighborhood like that.”
As if trying to embody the first lady of the United States from 20 years ago was not enough, Sumpter took on the producer role for “Southside With You.”
“I think the most challenging part of producing is that it’s about putting the pieces together. It’s a collaborative effort, and everyone has to be willing to cooperate and agree,” she said. “It’s also getting the money, getting it green-lit. It’s a process, but putting things together is my thing.”
Sumpter enjoyed producing so much that she is currently in talks to produce more projects in the future.
Creating and forging new paths is a lesson that Sumpter has embraced and started to act upon beginning with producing and starring as leading lady for this film. When asked about the change in direction from her other films and roles. Sumpter noted that change is good.
“I am the leading lady, and that’s huge,” she said. “That was real important to me because sometimes you don’t always get your shot. So I had to create the shot and take advantage of this opportunity. This was going to be my calling card, and if (the movie industry) is not going to create for me, I am going to create for myself.”
Some could think the timing is not the best with the Obamas leaving the White House in January, but Sumpter says it is good timing, but not politically. She wanted to tell a love story, and that is what the movie is about — two people falling in love. Although not politically driven, Sumpter did add how Michelle Obama will be missed and the effect that she has had on her life.
“Barack is great but for me Michelle is everything. She makes me feel like I can go out and be great, be anything and not dim my light for anybody. She’s still her own person. She’s not under anyone; she’s Michelle Obama, and she can stand on her own,” Sumpter said.
“To see a black woman in the White House and see how accessible she’s been to people. It feels like she’s more than the first lady — a sister friend who is also many things just as black women are many things, and she sees us just as we see her. She makes it seem like everything is possible. To me, the Obamas feel like home. Now they’re leaving, and they will be missed.”
“Southside With You” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, Aug. 26.