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Barack and Michelle Obama drop in on the African American Film Festival on Martha’s Vineyard

From left to right in Edgartown: Questlove, Floyd Rance, Stephanie T. Rance, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and Margaret Brown. They attended the premiere of Netflix's Descendant during the Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival on Friday.Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for Netflix

A couple of very well-known locals made a surprise appearance at the African American Film Festival on Martha’s Vineyard Friday night: Barack and Michelle Obama.

The former POTUS and FLOTUS surprised the crowd gathered at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown to watch “Descendant,” an award-winning documentary, on the first night of the film festival. Higher Ground, the Obamas’ production company, and Netflix will present the film later this year.

The Obamas introduced the documentary, which was produced by Essie Chambers, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Kyle Martin.

“What a surprise!” tweeted the Rev. Al Sharpton, posting a video of the Obamas on stage with other guests.

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We are still in AWE!” film festival organizers posted on Instagram the next day. “Setting our 20th anniversary off with a bang last night as our Forever 44th, former POTUS @BarackObama and adored, iconic First Lady @MichelleObama celebrated their film production debut with Descendants on @Netflix!”

The Obamas own a home on the Vineyard.

The film, directed by Margaret Brown, received the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Creative Vision at Sundance in 2022.

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 slave ship to illegally transport human beings as cargo from Africa to America,” according to the film’s synopsis.

“The ship’s existence, a centuries-old open secret, is confirmed by a team of marine archeologists. The film explores implications of the Clotilda’s discovery for the descendants, who grapple with their heritage while claiming the power to shape their own destinies.”

“... [W]hat this film reminds us of is the power that our stories have,” Michelle Obama told the crowd. “And we have to tell that truth.”

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“We are now becoming the elders,” she 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.”

She then introduced the former president and he took the podium to cheers and a shout of “Happy Birthday!” (He turned 61 Aug. 4.)

“When we left the White House, Michelle and I talked about the things we wanted to do post-presidency,” he said. “And 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. And it’s one of the powers of this festival... we believe that everybody’s stories matter. Everybody’s got a sacred story that motivates us, moves us.”

The film, he said, “captures an important chapter in our history and one that’s too often been distorted or forgotten or buried.”

You can watch the Obamas address the crowd in a video posted by Variety.

The film festival continues through Saturday.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.