Parker Sawyers: “It’s an honor to play Obama on screen”

Parker Sawyers who plays the president in the movie “Southside with You” can’t wait for Barack Obama to see the film. The actor, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Obama, does a great impersonation of the president and won the role over roughly three dozen other candidates. But if he had to do it all over again, there is one thing he would do differently. “I would probably take my hand out of my pocket a little more. I based that on a video of him speaking when he was like 29 at a rally at Harvard and his hand was in and out of his pocket.”

A romantic comedy-drama set in Chicago in 1989, “Southside with You” recounts the first date when Barack Obama, a first-year law associate, took a reluctant attorney Michelle Robinson on a daylong excursion around Chicago’s South Side. While details of the couple’s conversations are fictionalized, the events depicted in the film are true. The young couple, (played by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter), attended an art exhibition, took in a screening of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” had lunch, went out for a drink and even visited Baskin-Robbins for ice cream.

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU Photo credit - Matt Dinerstein
Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers in SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU Photo credit – Matt Dinerstein

Written and directed by Richard Tanne, it all started eight years ago when he saw accounts of Michelle and Barack’s first date during the 2008 campaign. “They talked about it a lot in both presidential campaigns,” he recalls. “Michelle wasn’t interested at first, and Barack had to win her over. By the end of the first date, he had done just that. It just felt like the perfect conflict.” Although the script was written in obscurity, Tanne does admit he sought the first couple’s approval prior to making the film.

“We didn’t get approval, but we didn’t get disapproval and that was sort of our green light. We weren’t shot down by the CIA so they are aware it exists.”

Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter Photo credit - Pat Scola
Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter Photo credit – Pat Scola

The first impression of “Southside with You” is that it is pretty to watch. Sawyers and Sumpter in playing the president and first lady aptly nail their characters. The audience is drawn to these two people as are they to each other, and it’s not hard to understand why. They’re fresh, likable, have a sense of humor, and it helps tremendously that there’s chemistry between the two actors who are destined for more starring roles. As Barack Obama, Sawyers not only embodies his physicality, but his mannerisms, including his hand gestures, which are displayed in a scene where he gives an impassioned speech at a community meeting. It’s there we see Obama’s ability at giving inspiring speeches begin to develop, something that would eventually lead him to the presidency.

Director Richard Tanne
Director Richard Tanne

“He was a law student and was an intern and he was just a guy trying to get a girl in the summer of 89,” adds Sawyers. “That was a hell of a love story.’ Independent of politics, independent of race, it’s a love story.”

With its languid unfolding of moods, it’s hard not to love the film, for Tanne has gone out of his way to transport the audience to a sort of love-fantasy. Using a lot of authentic locations, including a church where Obama actually spoke, he shows different sides of Chicago’s South Side that are usually not portrayed in film scenes. Even Michelle Robinson’s family home was shot two blocks from her actual house.

“It is an honor to be, I think, the first person to play him on film in a serious dramatic role. It’s the best gift I can give to someone I admire and I just hope he will be happy and the people who know him will be proud,” Sawyers continues.

The music, including a score by Los Angeles-based composer Stephen James Taylor, also helps convey the film’s temporal setting. Classic ‘80s R&B hits, which were hugely popular at that time, add to its charm and there are a couple of original songs, thanks to singer/songwriter maestro John Legend. Smart and sophisticated, sweet and nostalgic, the film has style and flair and is a pleasure to watch, plus the spark of romance between a future first couple makes it all the more poignant.

Parker Sawyers - Photo by Samantha Ofole-Prince
Parker Sawyers – Photo by Samantha Ofole-Prince

“Southside with You” is currently playing in U.S. theaters.

Samantha Ofole-Prince is an entertainment journalist who covers industry-specific news. Follow her on twitter @SamanthaOfole

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