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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Southside With You

by writer/director Richard Tanne

Sometime in 2007 I saw Barack and Michelle Obama do an interview together. It was love at first sight…for me. I was taken with them as individuals, of course, but I was really moved by them as a couple. Staring into each other’s eyes, they had that unmistakable “lover’s gaze,” wherein they saw themselves reflected back, not as they truly were, but as their partner saw them…as their truest, finest, most illuminated selves.

Perhaps I was reading too much into it?

But then there was the flirtation. The witty back-and-forth banter, the touching, the smirking, the giggling. The connection was palpable, the attraction was real. They were like Tracy and Hepburn in Woman of the Year, or James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in one of my all-time favorites, The Shop Around the Corner, except we were already watching the denouement, after the characters realize that their many opposites do, in fact, attract, and have gone on to live happily ever after, their established personality differences now an embraced part of their sexy and loving interplay.

Sorry, I think of everything exclusively in “movie terms.” I guess even a politician and his wife.

So now that we got to see the couple’s classic rom-com happy ending, I wondered, did they have a classic discordant beginning replete with friction and fireworks and getting-to-know-you fun-and-games? Luckily, the answer was a resounding “yes.”

According to the President and the First Lady themselves, the couple had an epic first date in the city of Chicago in the summer of 1989. Michelle was reluctant, Barack was persistent, and the day was comprised of enough activity to make you dizzy. It seemed like the type of adventurous and overstuffed date you would only ever see in a…drum roll please…movie!

Which brings us to Southside With You, an unabashedly romantic movie that was made straight from the heart by everyone involved. Though I set out to tell a love story, when the Obamas are your main characters, your once simplistic screwball romance also becomes a story of Chicago a quarter and a half century ago, a divided city then and now, it becomes a story of race in America, it becomes a story of progressivism and activism, art and pop culture, and yes, it becomes a story about “change,” both the way we change our lives and the way we change each other.

I didn’t know what I was signing up for when I started doing my own unworthy pale riff on Lubitsch, Rohmer, Burnett, Linklater, Sorkin, and last, but certainly not least, Spike Lee, but the Obamas gave me direction, they gave me purpose, and to a filmmaker like myself, they gave me the greatest gift of all…a story.