By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 2/1/22 – Premiering at Sundance 2022 this past week has been a new documentary by filmmaker Margaret Brown entitled Descendent (2022). Margaret Brown is known for her award-winning film The Order of Myths (2008), about Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama, the oldest in the United States. Margaret Brown’s Descendant has just won the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision. It considers the history of Africatown community in Mobile, Alabama, which was founded by the descendants of enslaved people who were transported on The Clotilda, the last known slave ship, in 1860. As the community considers the possibility that the wreck of the ship might be found, Brown’s film opens out into a rumination on the importance of history, not as a thing in a museum to be looked at and forgotten, but as a living and breathing thing that is folded into our present. Netflix along with the Barack & Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground label just picked up the distribution rights for Descendent.
Brown grew up in Mobile herself and says she wasn’t aware of The Clotilda as a child, although the story coalesced for her when she was working on her 2008 documentary The Order of Myths, she says: “I feel like, I must have known about it a little bit before that but it was almost like a myth or a or a rumor. It wasn’t like white people would say, Oh, the Meaher family did that and it wasn’t really talked about openly. It was like a whisper campaign.”
That idea of something being there without people properly noticing it is something that runs through the film, not just in the case of the ship that has lain in the water for more than 100 years but also the book Barracoon, which was written by Zora Neale Hurston based on interviews she took with Cudjoe Lewis, a survivor of The Clotilda, in 1927 but which wasn’t published until 2018.
Brown says: “What’s fascinated me about the South is the sort of way whiteness is performed. What being white means and, and how you separate people through this construct and that’s how, on some level, I came to the movie, even though the white people wouldn’t talk to me. There’s this deep shame among white people in the south. And I think the rise of Trump is really connected to this, like: you deny, you deny, you deny, so you don’t have to confront. I thought a lot of these white people would speak to me, because they had for The Order Of Myths. And then when it came to this movie, they didn’t. When money comes into it, people shut up and then I guess The Order Of Myths was more about Mardi Gras gowns than money.”
Descendant is the story of the journey, destruction, and recovery of the Clotilda, the last known ship to transport African citizens to the Americas to be enslaved. Director Margaret Brown filmed the stories from the progeny of the slaves of The Clotilda, both before and after its recovery in 2019. The result is a testament to the spirit of a community that refused to disappear, even when America forgot them.
In 1860, Alabama landowner Timothy Meaher bet he could smuggle a ship full of enslaved people into Mobile, despite the slave trade being abolished in 1808. He succeeded, smuggling over 100 souls to American shores. The boat, named The Clotilda, was then burned and sunk to conceal the crime. With it went any known record of the individuals smuggled aboard. The survivors began a 150-year quest to find and maintain their identity. The slave traders used Timothy Meaher’s ship The Clotilda, which had been designed for the lumber trade. It was commanded by Captain William Foster. While the ship was in port at Whydah in the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day port of Ouidah in Benin), additional work was done to accommodate and conceal the transport of enslaved people. Foster bought the slaves and loaded them. The ship sailed in May 1860 from Dahomey for its final destination, Mobile, with 110 persons held as slaves. Foster had paid for 125 slaves, but as he was preparing for departure, he saw steamers offshore and rapidly departed to evade them.
The captives were said to be mostly of the “Tarkbar” tribe, but research in the 21st century suggests that they were Takpa people, a band of Yoruba people from the interior of present-day Nigeria. They had been taken captive by forces of the King of Dahomey. He sold them into slavery at the market of Whydah. The captured people were sold for $100 each to Foster, captain of The Clotilda.
We mingle with experts determined to find the wreck and speak with locals of Africatown, where The Clotilda’s ancestors settled. Both groups are fully invested in finding some sense of closure. “The truth is in the bits and pieces,” a researcher says. He might as well be referring to the families fractured by the slave trade. The shame involved with the slave trade runs deep, so deep that with over 40,000 voyages confirmed, only five to six vessels have been recovered.
A new community thrived in Africatown, thanks to the tireless efforts of its storytellers. For over 100 years, people passed along these stories to preserve what transpired in their past and what was hidden from them. The most famous of these folklorists was Cudjo Lewis (Oluale Kossola), the last known survivor of The Clotilda. Descendant features incredible video footage of Lewis from 1928, shot by the first black female filmmaker, Zora Neal Hurston. Watching this footage is like entering a time machine; your heart rejoices for Lewis’ resilience but aches for all the suffering he endured. In an interview Brown added: “When I go to Africatown, there’s so many community groups, it’s very inspiring. This was more about the interweaving of past and present. Four years ago, when we started going to all these meetings, I was like, ‘Who are these 70 and 80-year-olds who just go to activist [meetings] all day, this is so inspiring. There were young people too, but it’s just really inspiring, the resilience and the struggle.”
When The Clotilda was finally recovered in 2019, the entire community of Africatown seemed to sigh with relief. Their quest for closure is over, but their work for survival and legacy continues. Industry sprawls around the descendants, with factories belching smoke into the sky and leaking waste into the waterways. Ironically, most of these factories sit on land owned by the Meaher family. The same family whose ancestors once enslaved the community’s people now poisons the very air they breathe. When residents successfully sued a paper company for pollution violations, most plaintiffs received compensation checks of only $200.
Descendant captures the collective strength of a community that refuses to be forgotten. It also underscores how far America must go to make amends for its past sins. The Clotilda stands as the most intact slave ship ever recovered. It’s a suitable metaphor for the unbreakable spirit of its passengers.