It’s tricky business making a film about a real-life person, regardless of when they lived. So Richard Tanne had it doubly difficult when he decided to make a film about how the world’s most famous couple met. Southside with You is a semi-fictional movie centred on US President Barack Obama and First lady Michelle Obama’s first date.
“What drew me to the story was the Obamas: the love they have, the way they look at each other, the way they flirt,” Tanne told Young Post when he was in town for the Sundance Film Festival last month. His imagination was ignited after he read one of the couple’s interviews, in which they discussed their first date in 1989. Back then, Michelle – whose surname was then Robinson – met Obama when they were young lawyers working at the same Chicago firm.
“It really felt like the makings of a movie, because Barack had to work pretty hard to win Michelle over, and by the end of the date he had done just that,” Tanne says.
The director agrees that the smartest thing he did was casting actors Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as the couple.
“Tika, in life, is as poised and as passionate as Michelle, while Parker is as casually charming and intellectual [as Barack Obama],” Tanne says. “Already, we were working from a place where the actors didn’t have to stretch that much to remind you of these two people.” It helped that Sawyers happened to look a lot like Obama, with and had a few similar mannerisms, but Tanne was adamant that he didn’t want the actors to impersonate the couple too closely.
“Sometimes, when actors do impersonations, it actually stops you from being immersed in the story,” he explains. “You’re constantly aware that an iconic figure is being imitated. To help people believe what they’re seeing, we had to let them just relate to the character of Barack and Michelle as real people by creating our own versions.”
Southside with You director Richard Tanne on making a film about the Obamas' first date
Mirroring the couple’s first romantic outing, Southside with You follows the pair as they visit an art exhibit, have lunch, and seeing Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing at the cinema, where they run into a boss from their office. However, one scene shows the young Obama giving an inspirational speech at a community meeting, hinting at the strong leader he will become one day. It serves as a key moment when Robinson warms to her smooth-talking colleague.
Tanne describes the scene as his “biggest creative liberty”, as it wasn’t part of the Obamas’ real-life first date. Though it wasn’t completely made-up: Obama did take Michelle to a community meeting on one of their early dates, and she has talked about how that was a turning point for her. “It worked dramatically, so I put it into the story of their first date,” Tanne says.
As he wrote the script, Tanne imagined how the couple would have challenged each other intellectually, shared stories from their lives, and related to one another. To capture their chemistry and dynamic, he pored over every interview, biography, memoir, and piece of footage he could find. If he got it wrong or offended anyone, he ran the risk of being sued for slander. He wasn’t paranoid though, he says.
“At the end of the day, it’s a love story about their first date. We were more focused on the challenge of making a low-budget independent movie.”
So far, so good: Tanne hasn’t noticed any government helicopters circling his house. In fact, he hasn’t heard that the President and First lady have even watched the movie, but once the President steps down in January, he and Michelle may cosy up for one of their famous date nights and see the film.
“John Legend, who was one of our executive producers spoke to them about it, and I know the movie has been made available for them. He told them it’s a great movie and that he thinks they’ll really enjoy it,” the director says, adding, “Hopefully they’ll check it out and get a kick out of it.”
Southside with You is out in cinemas now
Edited by Ginny Wong