When Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson went on their first date in 1989, they went to see “Do the Right Thing.”
In the eyes of Richard Tanne, however, there was enough material from interviews and anecdotes to make for a feature film, “Southside with You,” which opens on Friday.
“We know they went to ‘Do the Right Thing’ [in its] opening weekend and they ran into a partner at the law firm, and they had their kiss outside the Baskin-Robbins,” he says. “And so I was able to take the lynchpins of the date that were factual, and then imagine what they talked about, and use creative license to get the two characters connecting and clashing and falling in love.”
The movie’s “conflict,” Tanne adds, is that Michelle “was not interested in Barack. But she gave him one day to prove himself, and by her own admission,” he did just that. “So to me that had the makings of a romantic drama, the sort of classic boy-chases-girl story.”
The movie was shot in Chicago, the Obamas’ hometown, but Tanne did not rely on the First Couple or those in their inner circle for input on the script. In fact, he said that a source close to the Obamas told him around the time of the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered, that the couple were “excited by it but also confused. I think the first lady was just baffled at what the movie could have been about, because it was just a date.”
Roadside Attractions and Miramax picked up the movie, and John Legend, a friend of the Obamas, came on board as executive producer.
Legend “was saying the other day that he has had a conversation with the president and first lady about it, and told them that it was a really good movie, and he thought they would enjoy it. We know they are aware of it, and hopefully they will see it at some point and enjoy it.”
Tika Sumpter, who plays Robinson and is a producer of the movie, read Tanne’s outline for the project in 2013, and back then expressed a desire to play the future first lady but also to help get it made, whether that happened or not, Tanne says. Barack Obama is played by Parker Sawyers, a native of Indiana who had been living in England. He sent Tanne a tape of himself as Obama.
“The physical resemblance was uncanny,” Tanne recalls. “He was doing a very good but overt President Obama, commander in chief Obama.”
He told Sawyers to do another take and to “forget about the president, forget about the guy you see on TV every night, you are just a guy trying to get a girl.”
“There were still little Obamaisms that surfaced, but they did so in an organic way,” he says.
The movie’s biggest creative license is when Barack and Michelle go to a community organizing meeting on their date, and she sees what kind of work he had done earlier in his career. That actually happened early in their relationship, but not on their first date, Tanne says.
“I just thought that would be a perfect turning point in the story,” he says.
There occasionally has been buzz that the Obamas’ life story would be brought to screen, but Tanne says that he “never set out to make a biopic. I never set out to do the Barack Obama life story or the Michelle Obama life story. I was first just sort of struck by the way that the president and the first lady are together, the way that they look at each other, the way they flirt, I think they have a special connection. That’s on display for the world to see, and I think that’s pretty rare in people, your friends in life or your family, but it is even rarer in public figures.”
Listen to the full interview with Tanne on Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel, below: