Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama surprised the audience during the opening night of the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival to celebrate their documentary Descendant.
When Netflix acquired worldwide rights to the Sundance award-winning documentary in January, the Obamas’ production company Higher Ground signed on to present the feature alongside the streamer and Participant. The documentary, which earned the U.S. special jury award for creative vision at Sundance, is set to launch on the streamer later this year.
Directed by Margaret Brown (“The Order of Myths,” “Be Here to Love Me: Townes Van Zandt,” “The Great Invisible”), the documentary follows members of Africatown, a small community in Alabama, as they share their personal stories and community history as descendants of the Clotilda, the last known ship carrying enslaved Africans to the United States. The ship arrived in America 40 years after African slave trading became a capital offense. It was promptly burned and its existence denied, but “after a century shrouded in secrecy and speculation, descendants of the Clotilda’s survivors are reclaiming their story,” according to the film’s logline.
For nearly 15 minutes, the former president and first lady held the audience’s attention as they preached the importance of uncovering untold history and their aim to support projects that do just that, like “Descendant,” through their Higher Ground banner.
“When we screened this… we looked at it and immediately thought, ‘This is why we’re doing Higher Ground.’ Because what we know about our history as Black people, we don’t talk about nothing. We can’t get anything out of our elders, can we? We don’t know anything,” Michelle said. “Our mothers don’t talk about menopause, nobody knows about why grandma and grandpa got divorced. We just don’t talk. And there’s a lot of psychology around that, but what this film reminds us of is the power that our stories have. And we have to tell that truth.”
Michelle added, “We have to tell our stories to our younger folks. We have to be the ones, we cannot follow that tradition of keeping our pain silent, because what this film shows us is our stories are the power that makes us seen. And I also thought, this could be the beginning of a storytelling process, because guess what we have? We have phones, everybody’s using them. And we need to encourage our young people to reach out to the elders that are existing. And instead of taking photos of your food, or in addition to taking photos of your food and the latest TikTok whatever it is, how about talking to grandma and great-grandma and asking them some of those questions.”
They also made a couple of cracks about Martha’s Vineyard being their vacation home. After being introduced by “Descendant” executive producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Michelle approached the mic and said, “Surprise!” she praised the festival’s founders, Floyd and Stephanie Rance, and joked that they don’t get to come to the event often because they “create a commotion.” And when someone yelled to Barack that they wanted him back in the White House, he remarked that if he did that, he couldn’t spend a month on the island. But Barack’s speech soon turned serious as he reflected on the importance of being a part of telling the story of Africatown.
“When we left the White House, Michelle and I talked about the things we wanted to do post-presidency. We’ve got a lot of stuff going on, but one of the things that we learned both when we were campaigning for office and taking office was the importance of stories and who tells stories and what stories are valid and what stories are discounted,” Barack said. “And it’s one of the powers of this festival, and the work that the Rances have done is to lift up stories that too often have been lost in the flow of time. Because we believe that everybody’s stories matter. Everybody’s got a sacred story that motivates us, moves us. It’s not just a matter of nostalgia, it powers us into the present and the future.”
Kyle Martin, Essie Chambers and Brown produced the project. Executive producers are Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann; Kate Hurwitz of Cinetic Media; Two One Five Entertainment’s Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, Shawn Gee and Zarah Zohlman.
On hand for the opening night screening were Brown, Chambers, Martin and co-producer Dr. Kern Jackson, who participated in a Q&A about the film following the sold-out event with Joycelyn Davis and Veda Tunstall, both descendants of the Clotilda and subjects of the doc. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Jessica Harris.
Last month, Variety exclusively announced that the documentary would open the landmark 20th edition of the film festival, but the Obamas’ appearance at the event was a pleasant surprise. Also spotted in the audience was Stacey Abrams, former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Rev. Al Sharpton — who will sit for a conversation about “Loudmouth,” the documentary on his life of activism and protest, on Saturday afternoon. After a shoutout from the pre-show DJ, the trio of political powerhouses received a standing ovation from the packed house.
The Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, an Oscar-qualifying film festival in the short film category, runs from Aug. 5-13 with an impressive slate of independent films, documentaries, panel discussions and exclusive events. This year’s fest features Tyler Perry, in conversation about his upcoming Netflix film “A Jazzman’s Blues,” and Kasi Lemmons, who receives the Legacy Spotlight for her classic film “Eve’s Bayou”. Additional talent includes, Regina Hall, Reginald Hudlin, Michael Ealy, Patina Miller and the cast of Peacock’s “The Best Man: The Final Chapters.”
Watch the Obamas’ full speech below.