Barack and Michelle Obama Make Surprise Appearance at MVAAFF

The 2022 Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) kicked off Friday with great pomp — and a few bars of “Hail to the Chief” — as Barack and Michelle Obama made a special appearance for the opening night of the Netflix documentary ” Descendant.”

When Netflix acquired worldwide rights to the Sundance award-winning documentary in January, Higher Ground, the Obamas’ production company, signed on to co-present the feature with the streamer and contestant. The documentary, which earned the US Special Jury Prize for Creative Vision at Sundance, will 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 Alabama community, as they share their personal stories. and community history as descendants of the Clotilda, the last known ship to transport enslaved Africans to the United States. The ship arrived in America 40 years after the African slave trade became a capital crime. It was promptly burned and its existence denied, but “after a century shrouded in secrecy and speculation, descendants of the Clotilda survivors are claiming their story,” according to the film’s logline.

For nearly 15 minutes, the former president and first lady held the public’s attention as they preached about the importance of uncovering untold history and their goal of supporting projects that do just that, such as “Descendant,” through their Higher Ground- banner.

“When we showed 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 anything. We can’t get anything out of our elders, can we? We don’t know anything,” said Michelle. “Our moms don’t talk about menopause, nobody knows why grandpa and grandma are separated. We just don’t talk. And there’s a lot of psychology in 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 need to tell our stories to our younger people. We have to be the ones, we can’t follow that tradition of keeping our pain silent, because what this film shows us is that our stories are the power that makes us visible. And I also thought, this could be the start of a storytelling process, because guess what we have? We have phones, everyone uses them. And we must encourage our young people to reach out to the existing elderly. And instead of taking pictures of your food, or besides taking pictures 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. “

EDGARTOWN, MASSACHUSETTS – AUGUST 05: Barack Obama speaks at the premiere of Netflix’s Descendant during the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival at Harbor View Hotel on August 5, 2022 in Edgartown, Massachusetts. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for Netflix)
Getty Images for Netflix

They also made a few comments about Martha’s Vineyard as their vacation home. After being introduced by “Descendant” executive producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Michelle walked up to the microphone and said, “Surprise!” she praised the festival’s founders, Floyd and Stephanie Rance, and joked that they can’t come to the event often because they “cause a commotion.” And when someone yelled at Barack that they wanted him back in the White House, he noted that if he did, he couldn’t stay on the island for a month. But Barack’s speech quickly turned serious as he reflected on the importance of being a part of telling Africatown’s story.

“As we left the White House, Michelle and I talked about the things we wanted to do after the presidency. We have a lot of things going on, but one of the things we learned when we campaigned for office and taking office was the importance of stories and who tells stories and which stories are valid and which stories are discounted ,” said Barak. “And it’s one of the strengths of this festival, and the work the Rances have done is to bring out stories that have all too often been lost over time. Because we believe that everyone’s story matters. Everyone has a sacred story that motivates us, moves us. It’s not just a matter of nostalgia, it propels us into the present and the future.”

Kyle Martin, Essie Chambers and Brown produced the project. Executive producers are Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann of Participant; Kate Hurwitz of Cinematic Media; Two One Five Entertainment’s Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, Shawn Gee and Zarah Zohlman.

At the opening night screening, Brown, Chambers, Martin and co-producer Dr. Kern Jackson attended, who took part in a Q&A on the film after the sold-out event with Joycelyn Davis and Veda Tunstall, both descendants of the Clotilda and subjects of the doc. The talk was moderated by Dr. Jessica Harris.

Last month, Variety exclusively announced that the documentary would open the 20th edition of the film festival, but the Obamas’ performance at the event was a pleasant surprise. Also spotted in the audience was Stacey Abrams, former Atlanta mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms and Reverend Al Sharpton, who will sit down Saturday afternoon for a talk on “Loudmouth,” the documentary about his life of activism and protest. 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 August 5-13 with an impressive array of independent films, documentaries, panel discussions and exclusive events. Tyler Perry talks about his upcoming Netflix movie “A Jazzman’s Blues” this year and Kasi Lemmons, receiving the Legacy Spotlight for her classic movie “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 above.

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