Barack and Michelle: the pre-presidency meet cute Pat Scola/Miramax and Roadside Attractions

The writer and director of Southside With You talks about the city behind the future First Couple.

Writer-director Richard Tanne’s debut film, Southside With You, chronicles the emotional and intellectual courtship of two now-famous people: Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama, who share a first date in Chicago’s South Side in the summer of 1989. The two co-workers at Sidley Austin law firm adventure into the city from Robinson’s house in South Shore to an art exhibit, a community meeting at a South Side church, and a downtown screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. As the future First Lady and future President discuss their hopes, dreams, and goals, the city of Chicago provides a backdrop for their conversation about race, family, and community.

In many ways, it’s an utterly conventional (and critically well-received—The New Yorker’s Richard Brody calls it “an authentic joy”) date-night movie, but Southside is also a surprisingly thoughtful portrait of how two ambitious people relate to a troubled city, a place where they both want to help bring about change. CityLab recently spoke with Tanne about how the Chicago of 1989 influenced the film, and the presidency.

One of the few things you put in the movie that did not necessarily happen on Michelle and Barack’s real first date was the community organizing meeting. How did you approach packing so many issues about cities into a date movie?

I had read an interview where Michelle Obama talked about going to a community meeting with the President early on in their courtship. It wasn't the first date, but it was mentioned as being part of that time. When she saw him speak, it was a turning point for her because she saw a greater depth to this guy than she'd previously seen. I knew that would be important. I thought that would be a great turning point for the romantic arch.

Once I knew I wanted an organizing scene in the movie, I read as much as I could on what those meetings are like and what some of the issues in housing projects or low-income communities can be like. I tried to craft it in a realistic way.

You pack a lot of substance into the dialogue in this scene—it’s full of references to housing, infrastructure, community centers, and and so forth. Is there anything you learned in the process of research that struck you as you took on the challenge of writing a speech for someone as familiar to us as President Obama?

It's funny. What I learned mirrors the scene. I started reading about all the issues the community faced—you have asbestos problems, you have plumbing issues. We're talking about government-subsidized housing, so a lot of the issues are reliant upon city funding. We know how slow cities work, especially big cities like Chicago, and I tried to capture that frustration that comes with having to try to move the dial.

Chicago’s Quinn Chapel, where the community meeting scene was filmed. (Maria C. Roxas/Southside With You Productions)

So in setting up the community center as the major obstacle, I was at first uncertain as to what pragmatic advice the character of Barack would have to offer. Then I read about land use designation and how poor communities had taken matters into their own hands by attaining them and dictating the terms of development in their areas, and it felt like an empowering solution.

You filmed on location in Chicago. Was there anything in the process that showed you something about city life? It's almost like the city of Chicago is the third wheel on this date.

I was there for a month before we stared shooting. Once I got to the city and I was location scouting, the city started shaping the movie, because I would discover little things. I went to Altgeld Gardens, which is the public housing development that a 25-year-old Barack Obama really did organize. I saw this yellow brick wall, which is a memorial for all the fallen brothers and sisters who have died of gun violence from the community. I immediately knew I needed to write that into the story.

The memorial wall at Altgeld Gardens, where Obama worked as a community organizer. (Maria C. Roxas/Southside With You Productions)

That wall, as a resident showing us around explained to me, has been painted and repainted many times over the years. It was there when Barack Obama was there. That was a powerful reminder of the realities of that community—the realities of the divided city.

It fit thematically with some of the struggles we would hear about in the community meeting, as well as the themes of Do The Right Thing, which was a controversy that was percolating at the time. That film addressed the problem of police brutality against black men. All of that social commentary was coming about because of the natural elements of the movie.

A view of the Chicago skyline from Oak Street Beach (Maria C. Roxas/Southside With You Productions)

The movie gives such a good tour of Chicago and what the city has to offer. I'm thinking of when Michelle comes across the drummers in the park.

I had an amazing locations manager, Maria Roxas, who knows the city inside and out. I told her that anything that’s been on screen too much I really didn't want to feature—I was more interested in some of the lesser-known locations.

There’s a scene in Douglas Park on the West Side. When you film it, it has this lush enchanted garden feeling. It’s a little bit more neglected-looking when you're there in person but it's a landscape of the city that you don’t often see on film. I want that to carry through. Every location they go—South Shore to Hyde Park to the cultural center downtown—tells you a different story about the changing mood of the date.

How did you make the Chicago of 2016 look like 1989?

Well, we didn't have a lot of money to recreate the period. That was one of our biggest challenges. I had an amazing production designer, Lucio Seixas. I said on the outset that I really wanted to focus on the small details that can make a difference. That’s why you see close-ups of the cassette tapes. That’s why we chose a kind of muted color palate to show the browns, the greens, and the pinks of the Robinsons’ living room, the fabrics and the costumes and the armchair. Even someone smoking as many cigarettes on screen as Barack does in the movie—that can orient you to that time and place, because you just don't see it often anymore on screen.

Another thing was working to create in the cinematography a filmic quality. We wanted it have the texture that could have been made in 1980. We looked at a lot of mainstream Hollywood movies from the ’80s, to get that heightened naturalism that you saw in everything from Flashdance, Fatal Attraction, and Top Gun to Do The Right Thing.

We tried to achieve that quality, that steamy muted feeling. We shot on anamorphic lenses, which is not typically done. It creates a distortion that audiences unconsciously associate with movies from a bygone era.

So much of the movie is about the later-to-be Obamas’ relationship to Chicago as a city into the movie. What did you want to show people about that?

I thought about it from the perspective of what was their relationship to Chicago at the time. For Michelle, it was literally her hometown. So I wanted her to have an ease and a comfort in walking around, but also a very frank point of view about the racial disparities in the city. I also wanted her to have an eye-opening moment, when you see her in this quaint little neighborhood, the South Shore, but then you see them driving through the Gardens.

The public housing complex of Altgeld Gardens in Chicago’s South Side (Maria C. Roxas/Southside With You Productions)

There are parallels to the neighborhood that she lives, but it’s different. It's fenced in. The conditions are not as idyllic and she hasn’t seen that in a while, even in her own city. It’s not just the disparity between the South Side and the Loop, which she talks about, but the disparity within the South Side itself.

Then with Barack, it’s the place where he’s finding himself. It's the city where he’s finding his voice and the city where he's gotten in touch with his blackness and where he’s resolving some of his problems and now where he's falling in love. So their relationship to the city is almost as important as their budding relationship in the movie.

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