In coming months, we will be inundated with the endless highlights from our first black president’s historic two terms. One of the most delightful developments over the first family’s eight-year stay is the emergence of first lady Michelle Obama. Is there any doubt that she helped spark the #BlackGirlMagic that is our reality more and more every day?
Over 20 years ago, though, today’s first lady was simply Michelle Robinson, living in her native Chicago when she and Barack Obama had their “first date.” It’s that one day that the film Southside With You captures on the big screen.
This movie, from the Sundance Film Festival—starring Tika Sumpter of Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots and Ride Along fame, and relative newcomer Parker Sawyers, an American actor based in London, as the first couple—will finally be available for all to see when it hits theaters Friday. Sumpter came on board two years ago, before there was even a script, and is a producer on the film. During promotional rounds for the film, the very pregnant Sumpter sat down for questions following an advanced screening of the film in Atlanta. Here are some of the insights she shared:
The Obamas are aware of the film. “I know they definitely know about it. John Legend is one of the executive producers, and he does a lot of the initiatives with them. So I know at dinner parties they’re like, ‘Yeah, we keep hearing about this movie; we’re excited to see it.’ Hopefully Sasha and Malia get to see it too and see their parents in a different way.”
Playing the first lady was nerve-racking. “At first I was like, 'I didn’t go to Princeton. I didn’t go to Harvard.' … I was nervous because, one, she’s so beloved by everybody. Look at her at the DNC. I mean, you fell in love with her again, so I was very afraid. But then I just stripped away the Michelle Obama and just took it back to the South Side of Chicago with the Michelle Robinson … I went back to her family. I was like, ‘That’s my family.’ Her dad worked for the city for years. Her mom instilled so much self-esteem in her.”
Why getting Michelle’s voice right was critical: “She enunciates every word, so I got a vocal coach and made sure I was with her every week and made sure I listened to some of [Michelle’s] speeches at graduations because that was when she was most loose and fun … I never wanted to imitate her. I wanted to embody the essence of her, but I wanted to hear her voice because it’s so particular. You just know her voice, and she curves everything and she hits everything and she means every word. I just wanted [the audience] to feel that. That was important to me.”
On casting Parker Sawyers as young Barack: “I was really involved in the casting process for Barack because, obviously, that’s one of the most important roles. It had to be right and we had to have chemistry. … When he walked out [of the screen test], everybody knew it was him. The director [Richard Tanne] was just like, ‘Oh my God.’”
On Michelle looking past Barack’s hooptie: “Some people say, ‘Don’t date potential,’ but I think potential is just that. She could have looked at that hole in the car and been like, ‘Oh, heck no,’ [but] she gave him a shot [because] he was also intelligent and he had character.”
Greatest takeaway from playing Michelle Robinson: “The thing that I learned from her is that she never dimmed her light for anybody. She was smart and she never backed down from who she was to be, like, ‘OK, Barack.’ It was like, ‘No, this is me and I love me all the way.’ So that’s what I took from her. When you walk in a room, walk with your head up and know that you’re intelligent enough to be in the room.”
What makes this film special: “[Director Richard Tanne, who also wrote the script,] wanted to get the small things in … the minutiae of life, the things we do every day that are sweet. Even the close-up of the kiss, the ice cream and them taking their time. What I do love about this film is that they actually talk. It’s not about taking off somebody’s clothes. It’s not rushed. It’s really getting to know [a person]. They’re talking about fathers and they’re talking about healing, and you see in the movie there’s a lot of reflection with mirrors and things like that. That’s because a lot of times you meet people and they can show you things that you can change about yourself.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.