Writer/director Richard Tanne’s “Southside with You” was one of the best films I saw at this past Sundance. Now, with its release this Friday, it officially becomes one of the very best films of the year.
A walking and talking feature heavy on revealing conversation, it’s a project that treads a very fine line; its cinematic experience greatly relies on the embodiment of two of the most important people to walk this Earth. Supported by precise dialogue that shares where these two people have come from and what they were thinking about in 1989, actors Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers provide honest, magnetic portrayals. Consistently grounded, these performances are too rich to be mere impressions.
In one of the film’s best qualities, it presents this important African-American man and woman in lives of their own. Michelle (Sumpter) is a young professional at a law firm who has to work extra hard to be respected by the men around her. This includes the summer associate she's advising, Barack (Sawyers), who isn't immediately hip to why Michelle initially hesitates to call their time together a "date." He's a smooth-talking, kind-hearted guy who finds a way to finesse a whole day out of his time with Michelle before they go to Chicago's Altgeld Gardens for a community meeting. Tanne presents them as ordinary people that you want to listen to and care about, who are starting a relationship you want to root for. A love story that fulfills the soul without its amazing historical context, the happy ending of President Obama’s eight years in office just makes it even sweeter.
The film also stands as a big moment for its stars, who are in their biggest feature roles yet. Sumpter, who also acted as a producer on “Southside with You,” was previously seen in supporting parts on “Ride Along” and as a main character on OWN’s “The Haves and Have Nots.” Sawyers has only been film acting since 2012, appearing in movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Survivor” before making “Southside with You.”
RogerEbert.com spoke with Sumpter and Sawyers the day before the film's Chicago premiere to discuss "Southside with You," how they "broke down the Obama factor," the script's ideas about Barack and Michelle living a double life within society and more.
Take me back to the first day, when you show up on set. What was going though your minds?
PARKER SAWYERS: Well, the first thing we shot was right after the drum circle. “Not bad, Ms. Robinson.”
TIKA SUMPTER: I think we were excited.
PS: And then Rich, for what I guess was my close-up, they put the camera and said they were on Tika—do you remember this? And they set it up, and I thought it was out of focus, but then Pat [Scola] the cinematographer was like, “No, don’t raise your hand so high.” And then we’d cut, and Tika said, “Oh, don’t we have to get his close-up?” And they said, “We just did.” It was just really easy.
TS: So you wouldn’t think of that.
PS: It was a great first day.
TS: We had worked so hard up to that point that it was like, “Okay, now it’s time to have fun and do what we do.”
OK, so the pressure of playing two of the most important people who have ever walked this Earth is not there on set. Or is it?
TS: I guess in the beginning, it could be, but after you dismantle the Obama of it all and just bring it down to the studs of, they’re 25 and 28 years old, getting to know each other, figuring out this world, it was just more exciting or more fun than anything.
PS: And then when you’re saying that many words in the dialogue, you really just focus on the work, and you know that you only have 17 days, and we’re shooting in natural light so you only have the daytime. So then it’s just about getting the work done, live in the moment and get some good takes.
Does that mean before you’re shooting, when you talk about “breaking down the Obama factor,” that you start with a big impression and then bringing it down to a person? What’s the order?
TS: I didn’t start big. I basically did my homework of dialect and reading and trying to figure her out. But I think I just wanted to be not stable but I just wanted to be grounded for her. She’s very grounded. I didn’t start with a big impression, and Rich would tell us, “OK, too much,” or “Get on top of her voice more.” If I thought I was doing too much he’d be like, “No, I need more.” [Parker] might have had a different approach.
PS: I started with the impression. I had to sort of peel the layers off, so to speak. But then once I read and dug further into who he is, and who he would have been up until 28, then I started to root his confidence in the fact that he moved around a lot, that he was on his own quite a bit, and the type of person who was made stronger going through something like that. The schooling, he’s probably tired, he’s been reading, his brain has been overworked. Which is where I thought—I think he still does it to this day—the lag, the “uhhh…” He’s just got so much going on in his head. But I thought from a big perspective, and worked my way back.
How much of yourselves can we see in these characters?
TS: I think there’s a lot. At first I was thinking of what you feel when you see Harvard and all that, and I’m like “Ooh, I never could get into Harvard” [laughs], or at least I don’t think I could. But really, it’s just a girl from the south side who worked really hard, who was told “No” a million times about school and what she can do, and who came from a really hardworking family, so I relate to that a lot. She has an amazing relationship with her siblings, I have more siblings than her but she’s a normal, actual woman who is just really smart and chose the right person for her and they both collaborated and here they are now. I definitely see myself in her, I think a lot of people do. Especially women, of all races, all ages. I think she’s just accessible. She’s the girl you want to go out to lunch with. Sometimes I meet people I don’t know, and they’re like “I want to be your best friend,” and I’m like, “Really?” And they say, “Yeah, you’re my best friend in my head.” “Ok, that’s cool!"
You’ve got a lot of friends now.
TS: There we go! I’ll take it.
PS: Wait, you as Tika?
TS: People are just like, “In my head, you’re my best friend, because every time I see you, you’re normal.” And I’m like, “Yeah!”
Parker, how much do you see of yourself in your Barack Obama character?
PS: Any character you play, in anything, you still have to find something that you find in common with the character to portray it truthfully. But I think, with President Obama as well—well, Barack Obama at the age,—I think we have a similar thought process, a similar habit of forgiveness I suppose. And the confidence, I think it comes more naturally, but that is built on the things that I know I can do. And I think he knew himself quite well, at 28. And I think I knew myself quite well at 33. Those things were quite similar.
When putting this movie together I imagine you’d have to really rehearse it, or just let it flow. It's a lot of walking and talking, while having these very essential beats to the conversation. How did you work that out?
TS: [Parker] lives in London, [so] before he even came here we were on Skype, going over the lines, going over each moment and dissecting that. And when he came we did a little bit rehearsal, we rehearsed it like a play throughout in sections, and then before we got to Chicago we had to know it. And we really had to know it, and we also blocked it out the day before, rather than usually you get there and you block it out and you figure out the breaks and lighting. But you don’t have all that time, so Rich [Tanne] really made sure that we knew it well, we knew the blocking so then we could let it go and we were just walking and talking, so it could feel conversational. And just normal.
One thing that I really love about the film is how it presents Michelle’s ideas about having a double life as a woman, specifically a black woman in society. There’s also the notion that a man, even the future president of the United States, isn’t quite there yet in understanding Michelle’s own struggles as a woman. I think it's very important for a movie to express that.
TS: On a personal level, you wear different masks. I’m always myself, but not everybody is going to understand a joke that I say to my friends that I say to executives that are coming to the premiere tonight here, who don’t get the cultural references, who I can’t just say whatever I need to say. So I think there’s always a walking the line in how you have to hold yourself, and I think Michelle is just talking about the freedom of moving between lines and flowing and allowing yourself to be who you are all of the time, then having to be this one person over here, and then being this other person over here, whether it’s work relations or whatever it is. It’s definitely walking the tightrope all of the time. Especially during that time in 1989, she’s probably around mostly white men, older white men. Trying to prove herself, constantly, and then going back home and feeling like this is a different story over here. I think anybody can relate to that. I definitely could.
And the way you’re playing it, Parker—you’re playing it cool but your character doesn’t entirely get what Michelle means about not wanting to wear these different masks.
PS: I think the way that Barack Obama was raised, moving around a lot from Indonesia back to Hawaii with his white grandparents, I think he was sort of used to it. [In the film], after [Barack and Michelle watch] “Do the Right Thing” and he’s talking to the boss about why Mookie threw the trash can, it’s very natural for him to say, “Oh no, this is why.” But I think he’s used to it.
TS: But the fact that he can’t be honest—“He was f**king mad”—he had to make up something to satisfy.
PS: But I think he was, I mean, quite a few of us are ... you’re used to just placating somebody just so it’s like, “Let’s not get anybody riled up.” But I definitely do that. I have done that in my life. I think we all have. I went to private schools when I was younger, and then a private college, and I was in a white fraternity, and so there are things that people don’t get, and it’s like “You know what, it’s not going to matter.” It’s easier just to let it go. But what’s really interesting is that Michelle is like, “No, I don’t want to do that.” Did you ever think about that? Do you want to be authentic? And that’s something that President Obama says about her now. She is herself, anywhere she goes, and that’s one of her most attractive qualities about her. I think Rich hit that on the head that she’s like, “You know what? I don’t want to do that.” And then Barack is like, “Oh. Alright, haven’t thought about that!”
That part of the film where Barack and Michelle see “Do the Right Thing” is amazing. What were your first experiences seeing “Do the Right Thing”?
TS: I saw it later on in life and I definitely was blown away by it. I thought, “Wow, this is one day,” as well. And it feels hot. [Lee] really got the essence of Brooklyn, and what was going on. The characters were so alive, regardless of whether you agreed with them or not. And it dealt with real race relations, and it dealt with gentrification, all of it. I loved it. I feel like it’s one of the best films that’s been created. One of his best.
PS: Vivid storytelling as a whole. I think that’s what struck me. And then I watched it again before this, and it makes you uncomfortable, which is good. You’re like, “Wait. The same shit’s going on.” And I hope it’s a film that in 50 or a 100 years we don’t understand. Like, “Wait, that happened?” And it’s not like it happened a week ago. I hope it’s a slice of American history, but not an American thing. In that way, it’s a brilliant movie because it makes you squirm.
Was the production of "Southside with You" a crash course in overcoming the pressure of daunting roles? Do you feel like you could play almost anybody now, now that you’ve done these incredibly important people?
TS: I feel like the bar is really high.
PS: The amount of dialogue, I think.
TS: I’ve done a lot of dialogue before. For me, it’s not even the dialogue, it’s the quality of the actual film or TV show. I feel like the bar is set so high, I worked with such a great person and a great actor, just the crew and everything. I just feel like whatever’s next has got to be really good for me. Because I feel like this script touched so many amazing themes. Yes, it’s a love story, but throughout, there are different things in it. And especially, I’m really surprised how men are reacting to this. I’m like, “Whoa!” My friend just texted me, he’s a blogger in New York and he’s like, “I’m coming in for this event. Just got out of a screening. I shed a tear.” And he was really affected by it, just the conversations of forgiveness, and so many different … but it’s not just thrown at the wall. Even the cultural references of “Good Times” It’s not just, “Let’s throw in a black ‘Good Times’ joke!”
It has a lot to do with who you are and where you’re coming from.
TS: Exactly! So yeah, the bar is set high.
PS: In the screenings and the Q&As, it’s really refreshing—I’ve never had it before, where people leave with a smile on their face, and they say they love the film. Usually, you see a film, people are like, “Oh yeah dude, I saw your movie—it’s cool.”
TS: And people are like, “We want more.” Literally, they’re like, “So, a sequel?” And I say, “Guys, we did just one film.”
PS: They want the next date. Five seasons on Netflix!
Before I go, thank you guys for presenting the south side as a peaceful place, on a summer night with people just walking around, with love in the air. That was very emotional for me.
TS: I love it. Chicago is the thread, and it’s also its own character. The people here were awesome to us, and lovely, and we were so grateful that we got to do it here.