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Opening in theaters this weekend is Southside With You, a refreshing, positive story about two fantastic role models: President and First Lady of the United States.
Inspired by Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, Southside With You recounts the eventful summer day in 1989 when a young law firm associate named Barack Obama tried to woo lawyer Michelle Robinson during a daylong date that took them from the Art Institute of Chicago to a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing to the site of their first kiss outside of an ice cream parlor.
The film stars newcomer Parker Sawyers as Barack and actress Tika Sumpter as Michelle. Tika is also one of the film’s producers.
I recently spoke to Tika and the film’s Executive Producer, John Legend. The pair shared their experience in making the film, as well as what they hope moviegoers will take away from the movie.
SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU
MLS: Tika, in this film, you played the first lady. What did do you prepare yourself to dive into playing Michelle as an actress and as the film’s producer?
Tika Sumpter: Yes, I think it was more about, for me, what cultural allowances that [our Director] Richard [Tanne] used, which was the right thing, and what kind of hairstyle, costuming would contribute to me being able to tell the story of Michelle. But, the script already did a lot of the work. Obviously, I researched and worked on her voice, so that I could develop the character and all that. But, there’s obviously no references of her. Nobody has video of here that’s more than five years old, but it wasn’t really about the ’80’s. It was more playing a character more than anything.
During that time in the ’80’s, I have to say though, the work environment, she was surrounded by mostly men and mostly white men, so, that’s why she was definitely reluctant at first because she wanted to be taken seriously for who she was and what she had to offer. So, during that time it was probably a little bit tougher.
At first it’s overwhelming because if you put the whole ‘Michelle Obama’ of it on top of that, yes, sure. But, when you pull back the pages and Michelle Robinson comes up out of Chicago, a girl who was confident and successful and could stand on her own two feet by herself, and, has been told no many times in her life, I think that’s when I was able to connect to and not feel overwhelmed by Michelle Obama, but really connected to Michelle Robinson, and proud and excited to play the part.
MLS: Now John and Tika, apart from the love story itself, speaking as producers of the film, if the two of you could choose only one life lesson that you hope viewers take away from watching Southside With You, what would it be?
Tika Sumpter: I don’t have many, but for me, what I take away from playing Michelle, I didn’t even know. The film is powered. I feel like I don’t have to dim my light for anyone, that I can go out and confidently and know how intelligent I am and be okay with it. What I love about this story is in a lot of romance movies, you see the girl always crying or pacing, and it’s like, she’s the prize in this movie.And, I think women are really going to enjoy being the prize, and seeing themselves in a higher realm, you know, and–
John Legend: —Worthy.
Tika Sumpter: Worthy, valued, and yes. So, I value myself even more now, and knowing my voice matters. My voice matters and nothing can take that away.
John Legend: I think it makes people believe in love, too, just watching this film. And partnership, finding somebody that you can build with. We know what they’ve built together now, but it’s inspiring to see how it started out. And, I think everybody walking out of the film is just going to feel inspired and be in love with love, you know?
Tika Sumpter: And, want to eat some ice cream.
John Legend: Exactly.
MLS: Now John, this is a small budget, more quiet, and differently-paced type of film. How do you hope audiences will respond?
John Legend: It didn’t cost us a lot to make this film, so it’s not about [that]. It’s about giving something special to the audience, giving something different to the audience. There’s so many people that will be inspired by this film, no matter their political stripe, no matter if they’re a fan of the Obamas for they’re not. I think it’s really simply a really subtle, sweet date movie. You get to see a really famous couple go on their first date, and so tastefully done.
You get the intimacy, the back and forth, the rapport that they’re starting to develop. You see can that in it’s infancy, and why I think it’s a special, special film. And, I think that’s why Richard [Tanne], our Director, made this film, because he was inspired by looking at them as a couple, and looking at each other, looking even with millions of people in the world watching and they’re able to be themselves around each other. And, you can feel their love is genuine and their respect for each other is genuine. And, it made him want to explore that, and I think so many movie-goers are going to be uplifted and inspired by watching how it started.
Without a doubt, Southside With You is an inspiring story. Not only that, this film is educational and smart, and heartwarming. It’s a positive representation in a movie that’s not about drugs, violence, or hardship – something that we definitely need more of in the film industry! I applaud John, Tika, and the rest of the cast and crew for their dedication to bringing this film to life, and I encourage everyone to get to the theaters to see it! Let’s open Southside With You in a big way!