In Southside With You, Tika Sumpter Tells Michelle Obama’s Love Story

Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images.
America knows Michelle Obama. We've watched her live in the White House, address the entire nation, and cackle and sing with Missy Elliott. In Southside With You (in theaters August 26), a movie about the Obamas' first date, producer and star Tika Sumpter introduces us to someone with whom America is less familiar: Michelle Robinson.

Southside With You
is about a young woman — driven, clever, and kind — who agrees to go on a date with a charming, goofy boy. They walk through a park, talk about their parents, wonder aloud about their futures. And through it all is the quietest suggestion that the young people kissing outside of the Baskin Robins will grow up to be Barack and Michelle Obama. "There’s a complexity to Michelle," said Sumpter, who plays the first lady when she was in her 20s. "There were moments of hers that I needed the audience to see. I needed you to see the reluctance, to see their banter — it’s a flirtation, but it’s a guarded flirtation for her." By the time we meet Michelle in the movie, she's a successful young professional in Chicago straddling two worlds: stuffy boardrooms during the day, and the city's South Side at night. She's hesitant when Barack asks her out; she wants her white colleagues to see her as Black, but not simply as a promising young intern's Black girlfriend. These kinds of internal thoughts and concerns are what Southside is best at exploring. We know Michelle Obama. This is a movie about the woman who grows into the first lady, "the beginnings of Michelle Obama," as Sumpter says. The actress and producer spoke to Refinery29 about Black romance movies, code-switching, and casting her Barack.
It's rare that we see Black love stories like this, treated with this kind of seriousness and grace. What was the most important thing for you in telling a love story between two Black people?
"Imagery is so substantial in our society today. If you don’t see yourself up there on that screen, it’s telling people, ‘Well, you don’t matter.’ Or that you can just play the best friend. "I feel like it’s important for different variations of people’s lives to be played out on screen, and for people to see themselves. [Movies like this] tell people what stories actually matter. I also think it’s just important to see love stories. We don’t see them much, especially from the Black perspective."
Photo: Courtesy of Miramax.
I read a great quote of yours about getting Michelle’s eyebrows right. What was it like pulling together her look?
"[Laughs] Richard Tanne, the writer-director, and I really wanted to create the Michelle Obama that people saw in 1989, or the one people would see if they looked back: just classic, clean, professional. Still sexy, but without being too much. We really researched what she looked like. There was a picture of her wearing an orange blouse back then [with] her hair like mine is in the film."

She dances with Beyoncé, but she also went to Harvard. I think every woman in the world can see themselves in her.

Tika Sumpter
As an actress, what’s the difference between playing Michelle Robinson versus Michelle Obama?
“Michelle Obama is now... But Michelle Robinson is the girl from South Side. She’s the girl figuring it out still, she’s a second-year associate at a law firm. She went to Princeton and Harvard and is successful in her own right. [I'm playing] the beginnings of Michelle Obama. She could stand within her own intelligence and her own career choices. She didn’t have to have Obama to be who she is. I think they just made each other better.”

What's great about your performance is that you're embodying Michelle, not just impersonating her. How did you decide how to play her?
“That, from the beginning, was important to me. I didn’t want to imitate or make a caricature. I didn’t want to SNL her. They’re awesome on SNL, but it could have gone really bad, fast. "It was important for me to humanize her, and for people to feel her, and for her to be accessible. It was a real conversation. I think the script did a lot of the work — these were people who knew they wanted to do more in life, and they challenged each other.” Speaking of this idea of accessibility, there are a lot of great moments of code-switching, where Michelle talks about being a Black woman in conventionally white spaces. What was that like?
"We do it constantly. That was what her reluctance [to dating Barack] was based in. One, she felt like between work and home, she was on Planet Black and landed on Planet White. She had to constantly be two different people all the time. She was tired of that. She just wanted to be herself all the time, with someone else."
Photo: Via @FLOTUS.
So if or when Michelle Obama sees the movie, what would you want her reaction to be?
“I just hope overall she thinks we did a really good job, and I hope it makes her smile. I hope that she shows it to Sasha and Malia, and they love it too. I just want them to know that we did it with such love and integrity and care, and I hope that they enjoy it as much as we did creating it." This is one of your first times producing, right?
“It was definitely a learning experience. I was boots on the ground, getting this movie rolling. It was empowering because I was in the room where it happens. If you have something in mind and you’re passionate about it, you really can create whatever you want.”

Were you a part of casting Parker Sawyer?

“Yeah, I was. Obviously there were other names on the table, but we were after something authentic. The movie sits on their chemistry and their relationship. So if that’s not right, the movie is not going to be right. We didn’t care about a big name. When Parker walked in and we did some scenes, our chemistry was undeniable. We knew it was him.”
Photo: Courtesy of Miramax.
Having the Obamas in the White House has been so important to expanding our ideas of what it means to be Black women in public. How will you feel when they leave?
“They did their time. [Laughs] They’re probably so tired of it all. I don’t think this is the last of what we’ll hear from any of them. But they made their mark, and left a legacy. "It’s very real now to say that we can be anything we want to be. Seeing Michelle empowers me to say, ‘I see myself in you.’ I see the confidence. I see the creativity. I see the girl who I just want to be my sister friend! She is that unstoppable force. Along with being accessible: She dances with Beyoncé, but she also went to Harvard. [Laughs] I think every woman in the world can see themselves in her.”
This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!

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