The First Couple’s First Flick

Barack Obama has Spike Lee to thank for the first time he got to touch Michelle’s knee. So why doesn’t the first couple talk about their love of Do The Right Thing?

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Still, Rogers suggests that Lee’s unflinching commentary on race is precisely what makes the movie a family favorite. “He allows us to reflect on what is really happening in a very raw way, as opposed to cherry coating or giving imagery of what’s happening—he’s just showing it,” she said.

And that, too, might be said of the Obamas’ relationship to the racial themes of Do the Right Thing. If they resist public discussions of the film, they seem to have little problem drawing attention to other black cultural and political leaders who wrestle with society’s most uncomfortable issues. Barack gave Attorney General Eric Holder a platform to deliver a verbal spanking to Americans on race. The White House seems to have reached an unspoken agreement with activist Al Sharpton; he rails against systematic injustice, and he also helps them with education policy.

The first lady has brought poets, musicians, and the work of controversial black painters like Glenn Ligon into the White House. They’ve brought the nation along to an August Wilson play in New York City and an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance at the Kennedy Center in their new hometown. So, whether spoken or not, the first family enjoys a type of cultural authority on black aesthetics that was unthinkable when the two young lawyers first bought their tickets to Do the Right Thing.

Rogers, though, thinks the film’s themes might actually be ripe for discussion: “I think it’s brought us into time; it kind of propelled us into a time where it may not be as shocking today as it was [then].” In fact, she said, of the world that Lee created on the block in Brooklyn: Michelle “would just fit right in.”

For now, all the signals suggest the Obamas actually think about their “cultural side” a great deal. They just let others do the talking. And Spike Lee’s film says a lot.

Dayo Olopade is the Washington reporter for The Root.

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