The story of Michelle and Barack Obama has been drawn as one about black achievement, the triumph of tradition, racial healing and just plain romance. But their story has also, from day one, been a political one. It’s been that way since their first official date 20 years ago, when the couple went to see Spike Lee’s third film, the notoriously political Do the Right Thing. In the depths of summer 1989—after a day of sightseeing in Chicago and before an ice cream cone that would end in a kiss—two young, Harvard-educated lawyers who would one day lead the country strode into a downtown movie theater and the sweltering heat of Lee’s Bed-Stuy pressure cooker.
Michelle Obama shared the details of their courtship during an interview just before her husband’s inauguration. “Our first movie was Do the Right Thing, which had just come out,” she told CNN. “That was his cultural side … he was pulling out all the stops,” she said.
Barack’s charm offensive clearly worked. And today, the Obamas remember the movie fondly. “I don’t know how many times they’ve seen it exactly, but it’s one of their favorites,” says Desirée Rogers, White House social secretary and longtime Obama friend from Chicago. In 2004, then-state Sen. Obama met Spike Lee at a party on Martha’s Vineyard, where he told the director, “I owe you a lot”—because, during the flick, Michelle let him touch her knee. At a recent poetry event at the White House, says Rogers, Lee was near the top of the first lady’s picks for the guest list.
But despite the romantic significance the film holds for the couple, the Obamas have a habit of downplaying their first brush with Lee’s foul-mouthed tale of summer fun, frustration, and racial unrest.
In a February 2007 piece for Oprah magazine about that first date, for example, Barack doesn’t mention Do the Right Thing. “I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb,” he wrote. On the Tyra Banks Show in October 2007, he again headed straight for the dessert: “We went to the Baskin-Robbins near my house and sat on the curb and ate ice cream,” he said. “And that was the first time that I thought I had her.” And in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, which the first-term senator wrote on nights and weekends to flesh out his thin political résumé, he is completely revisionist about that first date: “After a firm picnic, she drove me back to my apartment, and I offered to buy her an ice cream cone. … I asked if I could kiss her. It tasted of chocolate.”
Now, the story is sweet, but why has the president forgotten all about his “cultural side,” and his night out to see the Oscar-nominated portrait of a restless and radicalized black America?
Memory, as many people around the Obamas reminded me, is a slippery thing. “They have had so many reported ‘first dates’—ice cream, museum, movies, I have no idea what’s accurate,” says Camille Johnston, communications director for Michelle Obama. Anecdotes often get whittled down to sound bites—especially on the campaign trail, where every action and past offense is scrubbed for clues as to one’s fitness for office.
And Do the Right Thing was a particularly dangerous creation myth for the widely unknown politician. The film has many memorable moments, featuring real emotions and profound wisdom—Radio Raheem’s speech about love and hate comes to mind—but also the crudest of soliloquies, such as Mookie and Pino’s famous stream of epithets about Italians and blacks. This is a film in which the character Buggin Out professes casually: “I’m just a struggling black man trying to keep my dick hard in a cruel and harsh world.” This “real talk”—and the urgent and incensed early hits of Public Enemy—were probably deemed by advisors to be too much for the voters of middle America to handle.