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.
The couple visited the Friday event to introduce the film that their Higher Ground Productions picked up after its premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is set to release through Netflix later this year. Director Margaret Brown’s feature, which hails from Participant Media, centers on residents of Africatown, a small community in Alabama, who have a shared history as descendants of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to illegally bring captives from Africa to the U.S. The existence of the ship had been a centuries-old open secret that was confirmed by marine archeologists in recent years.
After an introduction from Descendant executive producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the Obamas took the stage at Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, Massachusetts. Michelle told the crowd about the film,”It spoke to us immediately, so we wanted to make sure we were here to show our support of everyone involved.”
She explained that the movie is a reminder of the importance of sharing personal information and community history with younger generations. “What Descendant reminds us is, we have to tell our stories to our younger folks,” Michelle said. “We have to be the ones. We cannot follow that tradition of keeping our pain silent. Because what this film shows us is that our stories are the power that makes us seen.”
Barack also took a turn at the podium, where he thanked Netflix, the project’s team and festival founders Floyd and Stephanie Rance. The Promised Land author emphasized “the importance of stories and who tells stories and what stories are valid and what stories are discounted. 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.”
In her review of Descendant, The Hollywood Reporter critic Lovia Gyarkye praised it as “a riveting impressionistic doc.”
The Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival runs Aug. 5-13.