Obamas' first date inspires romantic film

Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter play the Obamas in Southside With You.
Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter play the Obamas in Southside With You. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

LOS ANGELES • You have heard their playlists, watched them dance together and now you can see Barack and Michelle Obama on their first date in a film that follows the future United States president wooing his future wife over the course of a day.

Southside With You dramatises their first date in the summer of 1989 when he was a student at Harvard Law School and Michelle (then Michelle Robinson) was his adviser at Sidley Austin, the corporate law firm in Chicago where he worked as a summer associate.

Over the hours they spend together - which Michelle initially insists was not a date - the two attend an Ernie Barnes art exhibition, a community meeting and a screening of the 1989 Spike Lee movie Do The Right Thing. They have drinks and eat ice cream as they discuss their lives, ambitions and fears.

Actress Tika Sumpter, 36, who plays Michelle, said: "You see in this film that they challenged each other... and they walked in each other's shoes and they spoke about their family, and I think all that stuff is very real and accessible to people."

The independent film takes details that the Obamas have shared about their first date in various interviews and imagines the conversations they may have had.

Written and directed by Richard Tanne, the movie was a surprise hit at the Sundance Film Festival. He said his agents at William Morris Endeavor had sent the White House an early draft of the script and heard nothing back.

"We were just hoping it wouldn't be met with disapproval and it wasn't," he said.

Actor Parker Sawyers, 33, who plays Barack, said he started off with a "strong impersonation" of the president, but then let the mannerisms and speech inflections of his character come naturally.

In the movie, Michelle, 25, feistily keeps her date at arm's length, while Barack, turning 28 that summer, uses charm to bring her guard down. The Obamas married in 1992.

The black community of Chicago's Southside serves as a backdrop to the story. Michelle gets a glimpse of Barack's early leadership skills when he takes her to a community meeting to find a way to build a youth centre. Later, the two momentarily clasp hands as they watch a harrowing scene in Do The Right Thing, where a black man dies after being placed in a chokehold by a white policeman.

Musician John Legend, an executive producer, said: "They were seeing what was happening in Chicago and obviously Chicago is still in the news and issues between citizens and police are still in the news and the president has to deal with that every day."

He said the Obamas know about the film. "Once they see it, if they haven't already, I think they'll love it."


• Southside With You opens in Singapore on Sept 29.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2016, with the headline 'Obamas' first date inspires romantic film'. Print Edition | Subscribe