Michelle and Barack Obama surprised attendees at ‘Descendant’ screening on Martha’s Vineyard

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The Sundance award-winning documentary explores legacies of American slavery and the African diaspora.

The 2022 Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival drew a sold-out crowd to its opening night on Friday, headlined by VIP guests Barack and Michelle Obama, who were in attendance to promote the Netflix documentary “Descendant.”

The acclaimed documentary explores legacies of American slavery and the African diaspora. The Obamas, through their production company, Higher Ground, signed on to present the feature with Netflix, the streamer that acquired rights to the film, Variety reported.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, close the Obama Foundation Summit together on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology on October 29, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, close the Obama Foundation Summit together on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology on October 29, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Set near the Mobile, Alabama community of Africatown, the documentary follows descendants of the surviving Africans who arrived on U.S. shores in shackles aboard the Clotilda, a ship that transported them to America in 1860, more than 50 years after African slave trading was outlawed as a capital offense, according to the outlet.

Directed by Margaret Brown and executive produced by Questlove, the feature film showcases descendants of those survivors reclaiming their story after the Clotilda was burned. As described in the film’s logline, the ship’s destruction led to denial of its existence and “a century shrouded in secrecy and speculation.”

The Obamas addressed the packed crowd on Friday to share how moved they were by the documentary and its themes of uncovering African American histories that have been deliberately fragmented.

“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” the former first lady said, adding that the film reminds us of “the power that our stories have.”

Descendant thegrio.com
Descendant (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The former first lady continued: “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.”

Barack Obama said that amplifying marginalized stories is one of the goals he and his wife set for their post-White House lives, explaining that his experience in office further opened his eyes to the hierarchy of “who tells stories and what stories are valid and what stories are discounted.”

“It’s one of the powers of this festival, and the work that (MVAAFF founders Floyd and Stephanie Rance) have done is to lift up stories that too often have been lost in the flow of time,” Obama said, according to Variety. “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.”

The documentary, which the U.S. special jury at Sundance honored with the award for creative vision in January, is slated for worldwide release on Netflix later in 2022, per Variety.

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