Southside With You is the latest in a long line of presidential biopics. But since it is simply an account of the Obamas’ first date, with little reference to their illustrious future, how will it rate alongside the likes of Young Mr Lincoln and PT 109?
Initial spark between two interesting people ... Tika Sumpter as Michelle Robinson and Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama in Southside With You. Photograph: Pat Scola/AP
If Hollywood is to be believed, the most fascinating parts of a life are the rise and the fall — the ascent up the mountain and the inevitable tumble back to sea level. The middle bit — all the stuff about how one copes with the mundane reality of one’s fate — is less travelled territory. Look no further than the superhero origin story. Despite how often moviegoers have seen Batman’s parents gunned down in an alley, no shortage of films and TV shows choose to dramatise it yet again. But long before capes and masks were dominating cinemas, the film industry was giving audiences another kind of myth: the presidential origin story, of which Barack Obama films Southside With You and Barry are the latest entries in the genre.
Americans love a good presidential biopic, even ones for those commanders-in-chief who might not immediately jump to mind as worthy of the treatment. In 1944, 20th Century Fox released Wilson, a film depicting the 28th president Woodrow Wilson, who shepherded the country through the previous war. The Gorgeous Hussy, a 1936 film about Andrew Jackson, was a fictionalised account of the Petticoat affair, a scandal involving the wife of a cabinet member.
Far more typical are the films that seek to canonise a former or sitting president. John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln – like Wilson, released by Fox, though five years earlier – is a lightly factual origin story about Abraham Lincoln. PT 109 – which hit cinemas five months before the assassination of its real-life inspiration, John F Kennedy – took inspiration from JFK’s command of a navy boat during the second world war. In both cases, these films seek to build a throughline from the lessons learned in an early conflict to the rise to power. JFK discovers how to lead men through crisis. Lincoln learns fairness and compassion by coming to the aid of two brothers wrongfully accused of murder.
Barry and Southside With You both fall squarely in the hagiographic mould, though far from the theatrics of war or life-and-death consequences. Southside dramatises the first date between Barack and eventual first lady Michelle Obama. Barry, directed by Vice on HBO host and documentarian Vikram Gandhi, depicts Barack’s struggles to adapt to living in New York City in the early 1980s.
Southside director Richard Tanne attempted to make a film that was both about Barack and Michelle Obama, but also a film that could stand on its own as a romance. “My job was just to build a credible love story, but the dramatic irony of the film is we all know what they went on to accomplish, the history that they made, however not everybody feels the same way about them,” he explains over the phone.
Southside covers only a single day in the life of these two people, rather than the biographical sprawl of Oliver Stone’s Nixon or W, works that are significantly more critical of their subjects than the average film about a president. The film begins before the date, as Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama – colleagues at a law firm in Chicago – get ready, chat with their parents and express trepidation over the upcoming rendezvous. Is it a date? Michelle is convinced it isn’t. Barack’s mother asks if the new girl is white. She isn’t. Tanne plays up the initial friction, casting some doubt on the relationship, even if the outcome is predetermined.
“Michelle was very picky and very selective and guys didn’t last that long,” he says. “I extrapolated from that that here was this 25-year-old woman whose intelligence was boundless. She skipped second and third grade and was already a second-year associate at the biggest firm in Chicago after graduating Harvard Law.” Michelle’s prodigious talent, her success to that point in her career, and her keen understanding of the unsavoury aspects of office politics make her initial scepticism over dating a subordinate understandable. “She was well ahead of where Barack was professionally at that time,” Tanne says.
Michelle is played by Tika Sumpter, who has popped up in a variety of high-profile projects – from a Madea movie and Ride Along 2 to the James Brown biopic Get On Up. She was the first actor cast and is also a producer on Southside. The search for Barack was far more complicated. “We read about 30 Los Angeles-based actors and we got tapes sent in from elsewhere around the country,” Tanne says. “Everyone we read was a terrific actor, but they weren’t quite Obama. They couldn’t get the president out of their minds. I just needed them to be a guy trying to get a girl.”
The role eventually went to newcomer Parker Sawyers, who does a remarkable job capturing the essence of one of the most famous men in the world. “I did the audition, but it was a straight-on impersonation. It was not nuanced, it wasn’t even very good acting,” says Sawyers. “I didn’t hear anything back, and then it came back around in April 2015. I spoke to Rich for 20 minutes. He says: ‘Dude, drop the impersonation. Just play yourself. Just be you. No Barack.’”
Oliver Stone’s Nixon, starring Anthony Hopkins (left) is considerably more critical of its subject than most presidential biopics. Photograph: Allstar/Buena Vista
The note worked and Sawyers got the part. “I’m sure President Obama, when we don’t see him, acts a different way.” That’s the trick of playing a celebrity before they were a celebrity. They are fundamentally not the same person that they are today – less aware of people watching them, unaffected by the spotlight and significantly less performative. Sawyers and Sumpter don’t really tip their hats to the Obamas’ future role in American history until key moments in the film’s final act, but even then, it’s all quite subtle and never distracts from Tanne’s “credible love story”.
The most curious aspect of both Barry (which is to be released globally by Netflix) and Southside is that they are both coming out while Obama is still in office, which gives them another thing in common with PT 109. I tell Tanne that I was initially put off by the idea of a film about the Obamas coming so soon after they ascended to the White House. The history is too recent, I say. Of course, it’s not that recent, as the first date was over 20 years ago. Stripped of any political or historical significance, the film is simply a clever way to tell one of the most common stories there is: the initial spark of love between two interesting people.
“Back in 2007, I was really taken by them as a couple, the way they looked at each other, the way they flirted,” Tanne says. “It’s a very authentic, sexy, and vibrant connection between them. I find that to be rare in people that you meet, everyday folks, and even rarer in public figures.” How difficult it would be to pull off this movie about most other recent presidents. The Obamas are unique in that their affection pops off the screen whenever they share a stage.
I ask Tanne how Obama’s final presidential legacy might affect the way his movie is perceived in the future. Will it be a Young Mr Lincoln-esque work that spawns an enduring myth? Or will it be viewed with a sceptical eye, the way something like Wilson is consumed, as the public begins to sour on the Obama era? He pauses. Real history, he thinks, “shades the movie. As the legacy evolves, I can imagine that audiences will see the film differently, as the pendulum swings one way and then the other way, there’s going to be constantly changing perceptions of the movie as relates to his legacy.” What can never be undone is the barrier Barack and Michelle broke, and the impact that will have on the US, for decades to come.