Costume designer Megan Spatz faced quite a challenge when asked to outfit a young Barack Obama (played by Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) in “Southside With You.” The romance flick, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to strong reviews and will hit theaters later this month, retells the story of the couple’s first date. Here, Spatz talks about designing for the movie’s main characters.
What was one of the big challenges for you on the film?
“Representing an iconic couple at a pivotal point in their lives, and the challenge of knowing how much to nod to who they will become — but also portraying them without any preconceived notions. It was a little bit terrifying because you had just one look that had to do all of these things — and [with Michelle] you’re dressing a fashion icon.”
How did you find inspiration for the characters?
“We started looking at old pictures of them, and they were pretty casual. There is a great picture of them right at the beginning of their courtship, and Michelle is wearing an army-ish sort of jacket and Barack is in a polo and they’re just cuddling together. We took that in and sit in the back of our heads. I started with color, and that is how we landed on Michele in a warm peach color[ed blouse] and Barack in a very light blue shirt.”
What did you settle on for Michelle’s look?
“We decided we wanted it to be flirtatious but rooted in professionalism. She goes on the date but isn’t admitting to herself that it’s a date. She wants to preserve her integrity, so she stays a little buttoned up. We looked at so many pairs of shoes: open-toed, closed-toe, slingbacks, flats, heels. We landed on wedges because we wanted her to feel comfortable. We wanted her shoes to add a touch of casualness to an outfit. And her shoes were thrifted.”
How about Barack?
“There’s a photo of him in Kenya in a button-down shirt, khakis and sneakers that set our direction. I went online to find vintage sneakers in his size and found them through Etsy. When Obama spoke about this time in his life [on Marc Maron’s podcast], he was talking about how he was still defining himself and figuring out what he wanted to do, so [we wanted his clothes to be] a blank slate.”
Once you figured out the main characters, what else was on your plate?
“My team were running around trying to get 50 extras looking correct for the period. It was great because people were so excited about the project. It is one of the films I’ve worked on that literally everyone was happy to be there and loved the story and were excited to be a part of the story and telling the story. Especially the people in the church meeting scene, because all of them [were excited] to be able to tell a bit of the personal history of the first black president.”