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“I was nervous as heck,” remembers actress Tika Sumpter of sitting in a theater back in January at the Sundance Film Festival, watching her movie Southside With You with an audience for the first time. “I didn’t even bother taking off my leather jacket, so I was just sitting there sweating.”
Sumpter, 36, soon found out that there was little to be nervous about. The movie received rave reviews at the fest, secured North American distribution through a deal with Roadside Attractions and Miramax and is getting an 811-theater nationwide release this weekend.
Southside, a walk-and-talk romance that chronicles the first date of President Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Sumpter), also is the directorial debut of writer-director Richard Tanne.
“People walk in with a hesitation,” says Sumpter, aware that Southside could be misconstrued as political propaganda or a foray into made-for-TV movie territory. “But the film is not campy and it’s not winking at the audience going, ‘Look! It’s the future president and first lady!’ It is rooted in authenticity.”
Sumpter’s turn as the future first lady marks the actress’s first major leading role in a film. Her varied credits include the Ride Along movies, Gossip Girl, the HBO movie Bessie and The Haves and the Have Nots.
“I wanted to make sure that it was an embodiment rather than a caricature or an imitation,” the actress explains of her portrayal of the then 25-year-old lawyer. “But I wanted you to see glimpse of the [future] Michelle Obama, like you can see that 2008 DNC speech in her.”
In his Sundance review, The Hollywood Reporter‘s chief film critic Todd McCarthy wrote, “From the first second she’s onscreen, the striking Tika Sumpter is 100 percent the Michelle Obama the public has come to know: formidable, intellectually probing and a bit fierce.”
Sumpter was given the Southside story by an mutual acquaintance of hers and Tanne’s while it was still in treatment form. She met with Tanne and spent several months pestering him to write the screenplay. The story evolved into a tale of the future first couple’s first date, which took place in Chicago in the summer of 1989, complete with a movie theater outing to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, lively discussion of public policy and arguments about the confectionery value of pie versus ice cream.
During the preproduction process, Tika made it clear that if Tanne did not end up casting her in the part of Michelle, she would like to stay on the project as a producer, something she had never done before.
“I knew she would be a great producing partner,” says Tanne. “And after that meeting, I saw that she had so many qualities that I had identified in a young Michelle.”
“I have never produced anything in my life, so, for me, it wasn’t just a vanity credit,“ says Sumpter, who worked with Tanne to develop and pitch the project and secure financing, some of which came from Grammy winner John Legend, who executive produced the feature through his Get Lifted production banner.
“It empowered me so much. You get a say and your words have relevance. It feels like you are creating legislature,” Sumpter says of producing, likening the feeling to a song from Lin Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway musical Hamilton: “I liked being in ‘The room where it happened.’”
When watching Southside With You, it’s almost impossible not to draw parallels between Sumpter and the would-be first lady. The way a young Michelle describes her precarious place as a black woman who is an associate at a high-powered law firm in the pic is similar to how Sumpter describes navigating Hollywood as a woman of color.
“It’s hard enough being a woman at a giant corporate law firm,” says Robinson in the film. “I gotta work just a little bit harder to earn everyone’s respect. I gotta work a little harder just to be taken seriously.”
“She is doing a balancing act and walking between two worlds,” explains Sumpter. “And I am set up in the world of Hollywood that is mostly run by white men.”
On Aug. 22, it was announced that Sumpter would be reteaming Southside with You executive producer Legend to develop Black Wall Street, a historical drama series for cable network WGN. The story is based on the black community of Greenwood, Okla., which stood economically independent in the 1900s until the town was burned to the ground and hundreds of residents were killed by white rioters beginning in 1921.
“There are not enough variations of stories about black people,” says Sumpter. “I am so tired of talking about diversity, but inclusion is very important. Imagery is validation. It says: ‘You matter.’”
Sumpter spoke with The Hollywood Reporter by phone the day after Southside had its Chicago premiere. A little over a year prior, in the middle of summer, the actress was on location, walking the streets of Chicago for the quick 17-day shoot.
“I think it was important to bring [the movie] back and say, ‘Thank you’ and ‘We see you.’ The South Side of Chicago is not held in the best light, so it was nice to say, ‘Here you are.’”
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