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.
Indeed, the first couple’s professed distaste for dwelling too much on race makes it easy to see why they’ve kept mum on the controversial flick.
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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Teresa Wiltz: Spike’s woman problem
Kai Wright: Still do or die in Bed-Stuy.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.