Barack Obama Praises SAG-AFTRA, WGA Agreements, Pays Tribute To “Rustin” Civil Rights Pioneer At D.C. Screening

Former President Barack Obama made mention of the end of Hollywood’s labor strife at a special screening on Friday of Rustin, the Netflix biopic of civil rights Bayard Rustin made by he and former First Lady Michelle Obama‘s Higher Ground Prioductions.

Introducing the movie at the HBCU First Look Film Festival, Obama said, “It’s great to see even more of you since the strikes are over,” a reference to the restrictions on writers and actors in promoting their projects during the walkout.

He added, “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 writers and the actors came to an agreement that recognizes with worth and their work.”

The screening was held at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Obama noted that in 2013, he awarded Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling him “one of the seminal figures that changed the course of American history. Without him, I might not have been President and you might not be sitting where you are today.”

“Yet, for decades, Bayard was denied his rightful place in history – most of you probably didn’t read
about him in elementary school, middle school or even high school. The main reason is back in the
1950s he was openly gay. Imagine that. Think about that. This is someone who was courageous
enough to be who he was despite the fact that he was most certainly going to be ostracized, fired from
jobs, pushed aside. And that’s what happened most of the time.”

Obama said that “no medal can change what happened to Bayard, and no film can ease the pain of generations of Americans who have faced discrimination because of who they are and who they love. But Michelle’s and my hope is that, by telling Bayard’s story, more people will appreciate leaders like him who brought America closer to its highest ideals – even though they weren’t in the limelight.”

Former First Lady Michelle Obama speaks before the screening of Rustin at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.

Michelle Obama also gave remarks, noting that Rustin “set the stage” for the March on Washington in 1963 “and all the progress that flowed from it.”

“And yet — his name is not synonymous with that history as so many others,” she said. “An openly gay Black man did not easily fit in — even in the heart of a movement for civil rights and justice. And he wasn’t celebrated in our history, either. To us, this film is about painting that fuller story of our history — triumphs, complications, all of it.”

Also present at the screening were the star of the movie, Colman Domingo, as well as director George C. Wolfe, producer Bruce Cohen, producer Tonia Davis and co-screenwriter Julian Breece. Also attending were Joyce Ladner, an activist featured in the movie; Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner; and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Jonathan Capehart did a Q&A with Wolfe and Domingo after the screening.

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