Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama made a 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, which aims to encourage the Hollywood dreams of HBCU students and alums. Attendees included students from Morgan State University, Bowie State University, and Howard University, as well as high-level political figures such as Obama’s former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and current White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
“Rustin,” starring Colman Domingo and directed by George C. Wolfe, is the latest offering from the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions. During the event, Barack Obama expressed his support for the recent strikes in the film industry, acknowledging the worth and work of both actors and writers. He also took a moment to acknowledge Veteran’s Day, recognizing the sacrifices of the nation’s veterans.
Michelle Obama, addressing the current political landscape, emphasized the timeliness of the film’s subject matter. “Rustin” tells the story of Bayard Rustin, an unsung gay civil rights leader who organized the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 60 years ago. Michelle Obama honored the civil rights leaders present, acknowledging their contribution to the fight for justice and equality.
The former First Lady stressed the importance of sharing the stories of those who have pushed society towards a better and more just world. She also humorously lamented the state of history education, jokingly suggesting that the March on Washington might not be common knowledge in current school curriculums. Michelle Obama highlighted the overlooked impact of Rustin, an openly gay Black man whose contributions to the civil rights movement remain less recognized. She encouraged the students in attendance to believe in the power of their own stories and the role they can play in shaping history.
Before bringing “Rustin” star Colman Domingo and director George C. Wolfe to the stage, Barack Obama highlighted Rustin’s many accomplishments, including challenging Jim Crow laws long before the famous Freedom Rides. He emphasized the enduring legacy of Rustin and his instrumental role in shaping American history.
Obama also cautioned against the modern obsession with fame and social influence, stressing that real change does not happen through fleeting moments of popularity. He urged the audience to honor the legacy of Rustin and others by actively participating in the ongoing pursuit of true equality.
Following the screening, Jonathan Capehart led a discussion with both Wolfe and Domingo, providing further insight into the making of the film and the impact of Rustin’s story.
The event not only celebrated the debut of “Rustin” but also served as a platform for important conversations about representation, social justice, and the enduring contributions of civil rights leaders. Both the Obamas’ surprise appearance and their words of encouragement left a lasting impact on the audience, sparking a greater sense of purpose and responsibility in their pursuit of social change.