Road to a romance

Road to a romance


Road to a romance

Tika Sumpter knew the screenplay was something special. It was, at its core, a romance, with two charming leads slowly falling for each other over the course of a single Chicago day. They speak passionately — at some points, angrily — about moral courage and racial politics and the struggles of staying true to oneself.

It didn’t hurt that the two characters were Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, in a fictionalised account of their first date, in 1989.

“I loved that it was an origin story about the two most famous people in the world right now, and about how they fell in love,” Sumpter said. “You don’t see a lot of black leads in love stories, and you definitely don’t see a lot of walk and talks with black people.”

Drawing inspiration

In Southside With You, Sumpter plays the first lady-to-be at 25, a corporate lawyer who is also an adviser to a young man named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), an up-and-coming, Harvard-educated summer associate. The film received rave reviews when it had its premiere at Sundance.

As much as Sumpter coveted the meaty role of Michelle, once she secured the part, reality set in. “At first it was overwhelming,” she admitted. “I’ve never been to Harvard, I’ve never been to Princeton. I didn’t even finish school because I couldn’t afford it. But once I stripped away that ‘Michelle Obama,’ I was able to take it back to that girl from the South Side.”

Born Euphemia LatiQue Sumpter in Queens, the actor was the fourth child of six. Her mother was a corrections officer at Rikers Island; her father died when she was 13. “My mom said I was quiet and observant,” she said. In school, she was on the cheerleading squad, ran for student council, befriended skinheads and “the preppy girls,” spoke up for the bullied. “I was that girl in high school,” she said.

Sumpter caught the acting bug in grade school while watching episodes of The Cosby Show and A Different World. “I was like, I want to be in that box,” she said. “I don’t know how I’m going to get in there, but I want to do that.” At 16, after her family moved to Long Island, she would take the train into Manhattan, paying for acting classes with money she earned working the concession stand at a local movie theatre.

In 2005, Sumpter secured a regular role on One Life to Live. She’s been working steadily ever since, on television (Gossip Girl, The Haves and the Have Nots) and films (Get On Up, Ride Along 2).

In 2015, she saw an early synopsis of Southside With You by Richard Tanne. “I was like, please write this script,” she said. Even if she didn’t get the part, she told him, she wanted to be a producer on the film, to ensure that it got made.

To prepare, the actor worked with a vocal coach to master Michelle’s speech patterns, and watched videos to see how she walked and carried herself. In one scene, Michelle talks about the racism she encountered at Princeton and Harvard and how, even at her current firm, she has to navigate between “Planet Black and Planet White.” Sumpter admitted that there were parallels in her own field. “You see the differences in the way certain movies are treated,” she said. “But once you come to terms with that, you have to go, OK, I’m not going to allow that to hold me back. Which is what I love about Michelle. She never allowed the colour of her skin and all the things she was up against to keep her from breaking through.”

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox