African American history often gets buried in the bowels of the past. I am always embarrassed when I learn about moments from Black history that I feel I should already know. The subject of Margaret Brown’s documentary Descendant is the slave ship Clotilda, found off the coast of Plateau, Alabama (labeled Africatown). Having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, then screened at SXSW, it is the first film to open the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. Descendant is also produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground.
The documentary follows the living descendants of the enslaved on the ship that landed in Alabama, who are looking for validation and reparations. These people were tired of waiting around for someone to give them the answers, and shows how these individuals fought to bring this journey full circle.
The Clotilda slave ship arrived off the coast of Alabama in 1860, even though The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves was established in 1807. In the book Barracoon: The Story Of The Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston, she interviews Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last presumed living survivors of the Middle Passage, specifically those from Clotilda. Many of the descendants featured in the film come from his lineage.
Descendant isn’t just about trying to track down the ship but also exposing a cover-up that’s gone on for too long. The owner of the Clotilda has descendants of their own: the predictably wealthy Meaher family. Sure, the living didn’t participate in slavery, but the film does well to remind the audience that these people profit from their ancestors’ atrocities. The story goes that once the Clotilda arrived on shore, the enslaved were removed, and the boat burned and sank. The family of the initial owners of the ship seems to have misled others in finding the location of the submerged vessel. During the doc filming, the boat is found, but marine archaeologists find an even more disturbing discovery worth withholding from this review.
At least the people of Africatown now have a direct connection to their past, which can help them navigate the future. But the question now is, how do you move on? Some think it’s an opportunity for growth and a way to receive monetary reparations. Others believe this will be just another thing the powers that be will quantify and turn into profit to line their own pockets. In this scenario, both of these things can be true.
Brown never waives from the task of documenting the confusion and despondence of the people in this area. She does an excellent job at capturing the depth of knowledge from experts in and outside the Africatown community. Many of these people have spent decades searching for the truth. There is also a comical amount of tone-deafness on display from outsiders who appear clueless about interpreting a situation like this. Michael Foster, the descendant of the captain of the Clotilda, said on one of the expeditions to the Clotilda site “My ancestor was a master who was good to his slaves,” as if a nice master is different from a horrible one. They are still oppressing someone!
As for the technicalities of Descendant, the shots aren’t as clean as they could be. Scenes are often blurry or shaky, which took me out of the experience. Editors Michael Bloch and Geoffrey Richman can’t succinctly tie all the elements together because there are so many movie parts they can only handle so much in less than two hours. Descendant would fare better as a mini-series where there is no rush and viewers get to know all the major players in detail and take their time digesting the information.
Either way, Descendant is an infuriating and enlightening look at how often white supremacy alters the truth in its favor. The people of Africatown set a precedent for others who want to discover their roots and fight for deserved reparations. The mystery of the Clotilda was just one of many skeletons hiding in America’s closet waiting to be opened.
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