The Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival got off to a starry start on Friday night, with former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama making a surprise appearance to promote “Descendant” (via Variety). The pair acquired the documentary for Netflix through their company, Higher Ground Productions, after it premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
“Descendant” tells the story of a search to find the remains of the last slave ship to arrive in America, named the Clotilda. While the ship was burned outside of Africatown, Alabama in 1860, many descendents of the people forcibly brought over from Africa still live in the area. Margaret Brown’s documentary focuses on telling the stories of those families, using the search for the shipwreck as a catalyst to examine the deeply rooted traumatic effects of slavery in America.
After being introduced by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who also serves as an executive producer on the film, both Obamas praised the documentary and spoke to how it fits into their larger storytelling ambitions with Higher Ground and Netflix.
“When we screened this… we looked at it and immediately thought, ‘This is why we’re doing Higher Ground,’” Michelle Obama said. “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,”
“When we left the White House, Michelle and I talked about the things we wanted to do post-presidency,” Barack Obama said. “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.”
In his IndieWire review of the documentary, Robert Daniels wrote that “much like Margaret Brown’s lens gliding over the water, barely piercing the layer beneath the surface, she explores the various methods people of Africatown have employed to keep their history alive, and the many tactics used by white America to silence them.”
Daniels added: “In Brown’s must-watch filling of a historical gap, a blow against white-led Black erasure, ‘Descendent,’ explains to audiences how storytelling can be a revolutionary act.”
Michelle Obama echoed that sentiment, saying “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.”