“It’s great to see even more of you since the strikes are over,” former president Barack Obama told a full house during his and former first lady Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance at a special screening of their Netflix biopic Rustin.
Held in the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., the screening was the opening night highlight of the inaugural HBCU First Look Film Festival, whose mission is to encourage the Hollywood dreams of HBCU students and alums. Attendees included students from Morgan State University, Bowie State University and Howard University. High-level political figures, including Obama’s former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and current White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, were also present.
The feature film starring Colman Domingo, directed by multiple Tony winner George C. Wolfe, is the Obamas’ latest offering from Higher Ground Productions.
“As somebody who cares a lot about the power of workers in this country and as the father of somebody who writes in film, I am glad that both the actors and the writers came to an agreement that recognizes their worth and their work,” Barack Obama said before also acknowledging Veteran’s Day.
Prior to bringing her husband to the stage, a surprise greeted with wild enthusiasm and another wave of cell phones capturing the moment, Michelle Obama addressed the current political landscape she feels makes this film about Bayard Rustin, the unsung gay civil rights leader who organized the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 60 years ago, especially timely.
Acknowledging civil rights leaders and March on Washington organizers in the room, with D.C. congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is represented in the film, among them, Michelle Obama told them, “You all are the giants whose shoulders the rest of us are standing on.”
Rustin, Michelle Obama stressed, is about “sharing the stories of the folks who pushed us towards a better, more just world. And that’s especially important when it’s a story that’s been overlooked for far too long.”
Using humor, she quipped, “Now I hope we all know about the March on Washington. Can’t be sure nowadays with what they’re doing with history,” offering biting commentary of the ongoing anti-inclusionary efforts targeting the nation’s schools.
“[Rustin] set the stage for the March and all the progress that flowed from it, and yet his name is not synonymous with that history as so many others. An openly gay Black man did not easily fit in, even in the heart of a movement for civil rights and justice,” she said. As president, Barack Obama posthumously honored Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, “the highest civilian honor that can be conferred,” he shared during his remarks.
“Let his story remind you that no matter the complication, no matter the hardship, you can make history. Your story matters,” Michelle Obama, who is a well-known youth advocate, told the students.
“And, as we look around the country and the world today,” she continued, “we need you to believe that now more than ever.”
Before bringing Rustin star Domingo — whose performance Barack Obama praised as “brilliant” — and director Wolfe to the stage, the former president listed the overlooked civil rights leader’s many pre-March on Washington accomplishments, including challenging Jim Crow interstate bus travel 20 years before the Freedom Rides.
“This is one of the seminal figures that changed the course of American history. Without him, I might not have been president. You might not be sitting where you are today. I guarantee you this museum wouldn’t be here,” he said, emphasizing the enduring legacy of Dr. King’s longtime advisor and friend.
“These days we’re so obsessed with that 15 minutes of fame. Everybody wants to be an influencer. Everybody wants to be liked,” he added, prompting laughs. “But it turns out that’s not where change happens. We can honor the legacy of Rustin and others by taking our place in this long march towards true equality,” he advised.
After the screening, Jonathan Capehart, of both MSNBC and The Washington Post, spoke with both Wolfe and Domingo.