We already know how this love story goes: When 27-year-old Barack Obama, a charismatic Harvard Law student spending his summer at Sidley Austin Chicago, meets Michelle Robinson, then 25, his advisor at the firm, and asks her on a date, she’s going to say yes. Or, more accurately, she’s going to say no at first— “This is not a date,” the refrain of daters-in-denial the world over — but, by the end of the night, she’ll change her mind.
That dramatic irony is part of the joy of seeing Southside With You, from writer-director Richard Tanne, which introduces us to young Barack (Parker Sawyer) — cigarette dangling from his lips, hole rusted in the floor of his car —as he launches a one-man charm offensive to win over his crush and professional mentor, Michelle (Tika Sumpter). It’s a story the president and first lady have told many times, going back to their early days on the campaign trail, and the bullet points are well-known: A start at the Art Institute of Chicago, an evening viewing of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a first kiss over ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. Tanne’s film is almost like first couple fan fiction: Knowing what we know, what can we imagine?
The date is the entire movie, so the audience watches Barack and Michelle fall in love almost in real time, as the first date banter escalates from the entry-level “So, where are you from?” to the higher-stakes questions: What do you want from your life? What’s really important to you? Who do you think you can be? It shouldn’t be such a rare treat to see a young, ambitious black couple work through this nuanced stuff on-screen, but it is, save for a few notable, precious exceptions: Beyond the Lights, Creed, Selma, only the first of which has romance at its center.
Tanne sat down with ThinkProgress at the Ritz Carlton in Georgetown to talk about writing and making of the film, in theaters nationwide August 26.
How much of the way people feel about the president and the first lady as individuals is driven by this widely-held belief that they’re such a great couple? I’m curious what you think about how much of the public perception of them comes from people being so into the idea of their ideal partnership.
I can speak for myself and say that in 2007 or 2008, when I started thinking about doing this movie, the first thing I was really taken with was the way that they interact with each other. The way they look at each other, touch each other, flirt. And if I’m seeing it, it’s a public display. But what struck me was how authentic it felt, how vibrant and alive it was, and kind of a little sexy, too. On a guttural level, I just felt: That’s rare to see in life, and it’s rare to see it in public figures. So I know for myself that I was certainly taken with both of them as individuals, but there was something about them together that was really intriguing.
And that was when, on the campaign trail, they started telling this first date story.
It was definitely a part of that first campaign. And since, they’ve talked about it quite a bit.
What was your sense, as you were thinking about this movie, why was their first date so inherently cinematic to you?
Because of the conflict at play. By Barack and Michelle’s accounts, she was not interested in him at first, and she finally gave in and gave him one day to prove himself. By her own admission, by the end of the day, he’d done just that. So that sort of conflict is something you can hang a movie on.
It was relatable: This guy has to suit up and win her heart. And he’s got one day to do it. I liked the romantic conflict there. And that’s not even mentioning the dramatic irony that’s running underneath that date, which is, we know that they went on to make history. They don’t. So as this conflict is sort of playing itself out, there’s the thought that if it goes any other way, what has occurred — the history that they’ve made together — might not have happened. And that’s a separate thing, aside from trying to craft a good romantic story.
“What struck me was how authentic it felt, how vibrant and alive it was, and kind of a little sexy, too. On a guttural level, I just felt: That’s rare to see in life, and it’s rare to see it in public figures.”
Barack says in the movie, when Michelle asks him about his future, “I don’t know, maybe politics?” But my feeling watching it is that his ambivalence is a performance, and he always knew he could be president.
That’s probably an individual — each person will have their opinion about that. Parker, who plays Barack, he made the dramatic decision that the Barack he was playing did know at that time and was just being humble about it.
Plus it’s kind of an obnoxious thing to say on a date: “I could be president!”
When I wrote it, I was being earnest about it: That he didn’t fully know. I like that Parker played it that he did, and wasn’t telling the whole truth of it because he wasn’t ready at the time. And I’ve since discovered something I missed the first time around in my research: Within a few months of that date, when the First Lady took the president to meet her family, he was talking about making a run at politics with her brother, Craig Robinson.
So 1989 was your cutoff; you didn’t research anything after that date. What did you learn about them, considering they’re public figures and they tell this story all the time, that was especially surprising or useful to you?
That’s a good question. It’s been so long since I’ve written the script. I wrote it in August 2013. As a matter of fact, the movie is coming out three years to the day that I finished the first draft of the script. What did I learn about both of them? I think what really surprised me the most was how different their lives were, and how different they were as people.
There were things about Michelle’s life that were inherently attractive to Barack, because he didn’t have those things. And the same thing goes for Michelle. She had a very stable nuclear suburban family existence — a really idyllic little neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago. And Barack was all over the place, bouncing around from Indonesia to Hawaii, his mother to his grandparents, he didn’t know his father well.
What he had that she was interested in was adventure. He had a sense of worldliness. So you have these two very different people coming together and challenging each other and interesting each other but also seeing the world in very different ways.
Does it feel weird to talk about them like you know them? Like there’s a version of them that belongs to you, because you wrote the movie. And then, they’re POTUS and FLOTUS.
I’d never say there’s a version that belongs to me, but it was important for me to define that there’s the characters on the page that we need to craft. And there’s the president and the first lady. As it related to working with the actors, it was very much about pushing the people we see on TV every night completely out of our minds. Let’s make these moments real on-screen. Parker’s first audition was an uncanny, SNL presidential impersonation. I told him, just pull from your own resources. I think he did it beautifully and still managed to work in things we know about the president. It was very important to go: These are characters in this movie.
What’s neat about the construct of a first date is, you are kind of performing. There’s an element of artifice because they’re both feeling each other out, but that artifice is natural, because that’s how dates are. It sounds like you settled on this idea very early on: It starts when he picks her up and ends when he drops her off. There’s no How I Met Your Mother voiceover, “Well, Sasha and Malia, that’s the story of…”
Nope. And there was, at one point, a push from some people involved in the movie, they desperately wanted me to include photos of them through the years at the end.
As if we don’t know?
That was pretty much my argument. You’re on my wavelength.
When you’re writing, what is it about the date that makes it easier to get across what you want to get across, and what is it about being on that timeline that makes it more challenging to tell this story?
It wasn’t that the date allowed me to get anything across. It was more that, I wanted to get across the date. So it wasn’t limiting in that way. What interested me about them was their romantic beginnings, so it gave me an opportunity, actually, to ignore all that stuff that’s happening right now. You have your own relationship with them, so when you go to see the movie, you’ll bring that to the film. I can’t control that and don’t want to — I think that’s what makes this more interesting than a standard romantic comedy or dramedy — I just was able to focus on, how would their differences in upbringing actually bring them together? What could she say to him about him being down on himself, or down on his race, or down on his father, that would help him see it in a new light?
“Because ultimately, that’s what falling in love is: It’s holding up a mirror to the other person and showing them who they have the potential to be.”
Because ultimately, that’s what falling in love is: It’s holding up a mirror to the other person and showing them who they have the potential to be. That’s one aspect of it, and that’s what I wanted the movie to be: Two people showing each other how they can be better than they are. So it wasn’t limiting, it was actually liberating. Because I didn’t have to think about the full scope of their lives. I only had to think about: What would he say in reaction to what she just said, in this moment, on this day? Okay, I can do that. I don’t know if I can tell the three hour story or miniseries of Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency. But I know about first dates. And I understand that feeling.
There are all these really interesting conversations that they have about how Michelle, as a black woman, has two things she has to reckon with every single day, and Barack only has one. As sensitive as he is, there’s this whole world of challenges that she knows that he doesn’t even understand. Did you ever have a moment where you thought, “As a white guy, am I the person to tell this story?”
I think I got over that. That was initially, probably, one of the reasons why I didn’t just sit down and write it when I had the idea in 2007–2008. I didn’t really think about it that way, although I’m sure that insecurity crept into my mind unconsciously and prevented me from writing it. But once I realized, this is just a love story, I dove in with abandon.
What I found was that, when you’re doing a movie about Barack Obama and Michelle Obama is, they’re real life people — two people who spent their lives, and continue to, considering and preoccupied with issues of race in this country. How do they fit into this country, and the racial construct of it? Michelle was someone who grew up in a predominately black neighborhood but then went through predominately white institutions for much of her young adult life, and then worked in a predominately white corporate law firm.
“For me, as a white guy, it wasn’t, ‘Am I the right person to tell this story?‘ It was, ‘What a privilege it is for me to kind of open the doors of empathy and try to understand something outside of myself.’”
So not only do you have to embrace those things, but you should, to make it real and authentic and interesting. I think, for me, as a white guy, it wasn’t, “Am I the right person to tell this story?” It was, “What a privilege it is for me to kind of open the doors of empathy and try to understand something outside of myself.” I had never read anything about that gendered double standard, and I don’t know if she necessarily felt that way at the firm. But in reading and talking to people — it sort of arrived at that conclusion. And maybe that’s a little risky to do as a white guy, but I wasn’t even thinking about it in those terms as I was creating. I was just letting the characters talk, and getting them to talk, and that’s what came up.
In Southside With You, Michelle is really concerned about running into her partners; they eventually do cross paths, after seeing Do the Right Thing. Did that really happen?
It did. And I know she was concerned about — I don’t remember the source of this — but someone described her as being concerned that, as being two of the only black people at the firm, them getting together would somehow seem too good to be true, too cute, or something like that. I don’t know how deeply she was concerned because of that, I knew that was there.
What are your thoughts about asking the audience to think about the first couple in this way: As very young people, still getting to know each other and themselves, but outside of the context of politics?
The overwhelming reaction I can discern is that on the whole, people are kind of embracing that idea. There are a lot of people in this country who do not like the president and his policies, and a lot of people that group Michelle in with his politics. So you do see a little contingent of backlash about, “Why would anyone want to make this movie? Why do I want to see a president falling in love? I’m not interested in a political person.” And on some level, I get it.
All I can say is what compelled me to tell that story, which is that what they are for each other, what they appear to be, where something like that comes from. But also, there have been people who come up to me afterwards who say, “I thought the idea was a little weird going into the movie, but it really was just a romance. It was really sweet.”