by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU
Southside with You writer/director Richard Tanne is under no illusions that people will have an immediate response to his romantic debut before they've even walked into the theatre to give it a look. 'People certainly have a lot of opinions as it pertains to the Obamas,' he laughs. 'That was always something that was going to be well beyond my control. All I could do is try and make a good movie.'
The film, a hit at festivals across the country, including at Sundance back in January and here in Seattle in June, is a day-in-the-life romance looking at the first Chicago date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson (superbly portrayed by newcomer Parker Sawyers and veteran actress Tika Sumpter) back during the summer of 1989. Based on recollections from the United States President and the First Lady, the movie itself is still very much a fictional endeavor, Tanne staying as true to the day's events as possible while imaging what the dialogue passing between the two of them might have been. It ends up being an immersive, rapturously authentic romance, an apolitical journey towards togetherness that is as sweet and as charming as it is intelligent and thought-provoking.
And what possessed the young, first-time filmmaker, a New Jersey native likely more known for appearing in the schlock thriller Swamp Shark than he is for anything else, to think he could pull off making a Before Sunrise-like romantic drama involving the President and First Lady? 'Utter stupidity,' he says with a knowing chuckle. 'Ignorance? Naiveté? Nothing at all? Honestly, I can't really say. I tried not to think about it. I just kind of dove in.'
'It all started back in 2008, when I first read about the pair's first date. I'd already been taken by them, their relationship, the frank way in which they talked about it. I felt that was unusual for public figures to express themselves like that. And, I loved the story. The way he really had to win her over. That [Michelle] had these strong, professional boundaries up, as well as reservations about him that he had to find a way to overcome. I just thought, what a great dynamic for a movie! I think everyone can relate on some level.'
'So, it sat for me for quite a few years. The outline I had written had gotten into Tika's hands, and she immediately said she wanted to be a part of making the film. Didn't matter if it was acting or helping me just find the financing, she wanted to be involved. So, at that point, I knew I had to go write an actual script, if anything just to see if she still liked it. We kind of teamed up after that. I honestly could not have made the film without her.'
Granted, there was always an inherent risk in making the film explicitly about Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. But while he could have used aliases for the two characters in the film, while he could have gone the Primary Colors route and made a movie about the sitting President without ever actually using his name, the thought that he might go that route never entered Tanne's mind. 'It's about Barack and Michelle Obama,' he states flatly. 'It's their story. Their first date. It made no sense to me to use aliases as people were going to know it was about them no matter what sort of sleight-of-hand there potentially could have been. They were going to bring their own opinions or feeling about the President to the story no matter what. With that being the case, why hide?'
'I think, with Primary Colors, a movie I love, it's so amazing, and I love the novella, too. I think that's a bit more satirically-minded, politically-minded movie, so using aliases for Bill and Hillary Clinton likely made a lot of sense at the time. This isn't that kind of movie. It's a love story. The same as any love story based on real people. I didn't think that was something to run away from. I mean, I certainly wasn't sitting there considering the political ramifications. Maybe a smarter person would have. I don't know. But that stuff didn't occur to me until down the line mainly because I never thought it was of any importance.'
'There is a certain dramatic irony, of course. We know where Barack and Michelle are heading. We know what this spark is going to turn into. For me, that spark, that idea, it gave the story a richness that a fictionalized love story maybe couldn't have had.'
As for the actors themselves, Sumpter and Sawyers knew what sort of challenge playing these characters in this situation was going to be right from the start. It was also a challenge they were more than ready to embrace. 'Yeah, I think both of them knew this wasn't going to be easy,' Tanne admits. 'With Parker, the conversation was always bring more of yourself, more of Parker, to the part. I wanted him to access his own voice, his own feelings, to the part. He'd worked up this amazing, 'Saturday Night Live'-level impersonation of the President which was incredible, but it was also not what we needed the character to be. So, before he even had the part, when he was still auditioning, it was reminding him that he was just a guy trying to get a girl, nothing more. I needed him to drop being the President.'
'And, when he did that? I think the results speak for themselves. It was clear watching him, even in the auditions, Parker was the guy, he was Barack. I mean, he still had the residual effects of his earlier mimicry, but now those were coming from a place that didn't feel put on, didn't feel false. Watching that transformation was just a real joy.'
'With Tika, like you said, she was there from the start, coming on as a producer, making sure we had the building blocks in place to actually get the movie made. But, as an actress approaching playing Michelle Obama, or, rather, Michelle Robinson here, I think she feels connected to the First Lady already on so many levels, just in their world view, their inherent compassion for others, that innate goodness, that sense of family, she immediately got the character from the inside out. In this case, it was more about getting her to move and talk like the First Lady, to be as precise in her language and her movements. Internally, Tika knew the character, knew how to portray her, it was the external stuff we had to work on.'
To say Sumpter nails the part would be an understatement. It's easily one of 2016's finest performances, blossoming in depth and breadth and the story travels along its way, an assessment Tanne unsurprisingly agrees with. 'Tika would have been an amazing silent film actress,' he states unequivocally. 'She's so expressive, like Lillian Gish. The expressiveness of her eyes, of her face, it's all pretty remarkable. There are moments that take my breath away.
One I love of hers is when Michelle and Barack are walking in the park and she's about to tell him that her father has MS. This is something the character clearly doesn't share with people, and the sun is kind of dappling against her face, and you can watch her getting ready to talk about something she just doesn't, not with anyone, and Tika's vulnerability in that moment really moves me.'
'In a low budget, independent production like this, having an actor like Tika, it's a dream come true. It's that John Ford quote that an actor's face is the best landscape, and in her case, it really is true.'
There is an elephant in the room, and it has nothing to do with the fact the two characters at the center of the movie Tanne is in the process of seeing released to theatres features the sitting U.S. President and the current First Lady as its two main characters. 'I'm a Caucasian man,' the director laughs. 'Can't really hide that, can I? I think, I hope, that, over the years, you pick up little cultural truisms that will feel real to an audience when you use them in a movie.'
'For us, for me, yes, Southside with You is a universal love story, but it is also a story about two Black people falling in love. A story about two people who were, and are, preoccupied with race and how they fit into this world. I mean, these are two African American people who are navigating very White cultural waters for much of their lives. Whether it was school, whether it was work, you can't ignore that stuff. You embrace those nuances. You educate. You learn. This kind of stuff is what makes a difference; it's what gives the story its power.'
'But, I also had to trust the actors, and not just Tika and Parker, but the entire cast. I had to rely on them to let me know when things felt off, didn't feel authentic or honest. I mean, honestly, I can't say I know exactly how to answer the question. I just don't. I think the only thing you can do is embrace the truth of the people, their relationship and of these characters themselves and just build outwards from there.'
As for the reaction to the film, the filmmaker is understandably delighted by the overwhelmingly positive reactions Southside with You has managed to generate. 'I've been a movie geek my entire life,' Tanne says with a cheery grin. 'I look at reviews, read interviews, watch the box office; I do all of that stuff. So, now that movie is done, now that it is out there in your hands, in the audience's hands, I feel kind of detached, in a way. I'm just a movie geek grinning from ear-to-ear excited to read about this new movie called Southside with You. It would have been fascinating to me if the reviews had been bad, and there have been a few, but it also would have been fascinating to me had they been positive. It all would have been interesting. But the fact it's my movie? Well, yeah, that just makes it all kinds of special. I certainly cannot lie about that.'
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