The lives of Michelle and Barack Obama have been so deeply examined in every form of media. Now comes a film, which is scheduled to wrap shooting this weekend in Chicago, that has nothing to do with the first couple’s political life, but instead focuses entirely on the initial spark of the Obamas’ romantic relationship.
First-time director Richard Tanne is helming “Southside With You,” the story of the couple’s first date, based on his original screenplay. He took a break from filming earlier this week at the Water Hole Lounge at 1400 S. Western to discuss the project, whose “genesis of the concept goes back to 2007, when Barack was running for the highest office in the land. I actually ended up writing the script about 2 1/2 years ago.”
Tanne, a New Jersey native, said he finds “the president and first lady to be very compelling and charismatic people, but I also sense a real kind of authenticity in their personal connection and their love for each other. I wanted to understand where that came from. … I think it’s extraordinarily rare for people in public positions to have that kind of love on display. I think it’s also rare for people in general — even out of the public eye.
The filmmaker wanted to make it clear that “Southside With You” is “completely apolitical. It really is just about two young people in 1989, connecting in Chicago.”
That was a theme the film’s producer Robert Teitel also stressed as we chatted on the set. With this film, the Columbia College alum and Chicago native will have shot eight movies in Chicago, including “Soul Food,” the first two “Barbershop” films, “Roll Bounce,” “Nothing Like the Holidays” and “Beauty Shop.”
The political aspects of the Obamas’ lives, Teitel said, “all came long afterward. This is about the personal relationship between these two very extraordinary people. It’s all about their first date.”
Teitel believes the film will resonate with many people. “Who doesn’t remember their first date with the person they married, or began a serious relationship with?”
When asked if the Obamas have given the film their blessing, Tanne said, “From what I understand, they are aware of it. I don’t have too much information on that, but he is the most powerful man in the world. So, if he didn’t want it to happen, I’m sure we would have heard about it. So we must assume he’s OK with it.”
As for the casting of Michelle and Barack Obama, Tanne said that came about in two very different ways.
“Tika Sumpter, who plays Michelle, has been with me on this project since I had an outline. I wrote the outline for it and she was given the outline, and she wanted to see it through to fruition. … I always knew she was the right person to play Michelle. It was clear she had the statuesque beauty and the confidence to pull it all off.”
Sumpter is known to audiences for her roles in such projects as the TV soap “One Life to Live,” the television series “The Game” and “The Have and the Have Nots,” the recent HBO film “Bessie” and the feature films “Ride Along,” “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas” and “Get On Up.”
“With Parker Sawyers, who is playing Barack, there were a lot of casting possibilities — a number of names in the mix during the casting process,” Tanne said. “But in the end it wasn’t difficult because when Parker walked in, he was just so evidently the young Obama, without even having to try to be Barack.”
One scene depicts the couple at a community organizing meeting, where Barack speaks and the woman then known as Michelle Robinson develops a deeper respect for his intellect. She ends up joining him for a drink at a bar “and kind of connecting with him in a different way, beyond merely being friends,” said Tanne.
No distributor or release date has been set for “Southside With You,” but Teitel expects it to be in theaters sometime in 2016.
How about a special screening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
“Now, wouldn’t that be nice,” said Teitel with a big wink.