‘Descendant’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Margaret Brown’s documentary delves into the history of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in the U.S.

Descendant, Margaret Brown’s impressionistic documentary about the last known slave ship to arrive on America’s shores and its legacy in an historic Alabama community, is an achievement. The capacious and riveting film arrives at an unsettling moment in U.S. politics: Across the country, historical suppression is being recodified while parents and politicians debate what the next generation will remember of the nation’s past. Brown’s film — generously guided by its subjects — humbly offers a reminder of what is really at stake.

The Clotilda docked in Mobile, Alabama, in 1860, decades after it was illegal to continue importing enslaved people and five years before chattel slavery’s legal abolition. The enterprise was funded by Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher, who partnered with Captain William Foster. Foster kidnapped more than 100 Africans from their homelands. After disembarking in the States, he ordered for the Clotilda to be burned and sunk — destroying any evidence of the duo’s illicit deed.


The Bottom Line

A riveting impressionistic doc.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Director: Margaret Brown
Screenwriters: Margaret Brown, Dr. Kern Jackson

1 hour 48 minutes

Those brought aboard the Clotilda were enslaved until 1865, when the Civil War and ratification of the 13th amendment ended chattel slavery. After a failed attempt to return to Africa, the survivors founded their own town — Africatown — a few miles outside of Mobile. The small community flourished and its residents passed down stories about their arrival to their children. Within this town, the lore about the Clotilda, the Meahers and the Fosters never died. In 1927, an enterprising anthropologist and writer named Zora Neale Hurston travelled to Alabama to interview Cudjo Lewis, one of the ship’s last living survivors. She compiled his life story into a book, but because publishers feared it would alienate readers, Barracoon was not published until 2018. A year later, in 2019, the schooner Clotilda was found.

Descendant chronicles the events leading up to the ship’s discovery and tries, with care, to examine its impact on the current residents of Africatown, whose history has for so long been ignored or dismissed by outsiders. The film is not the first investigation into this history, nor will it be the last — a book about the Clotilda written by journalist Ben Raines will be published at the end of this month and National Geographic will release its own documentary special in February — but it might be one of the more intimate.

Water — meditative, spiritual, haunting — guides Descendant, which opens with Kamau Sadiki, a diver who works with the Smithsonian, rowing on a river. “It brings about a sense of peace and tranquility,” he says of water. “I want to stay connected to the water as much as possible.” Sadiki, who is involved in the ship’s excavation efforts, bookends the film, which closes with a glimpse of his efforts to get Africatown’s youngest residents into diving so they too can get closer to the sea.

But before Descendent, which was executive produced by Questlove (also a descendant of the Clotilda), gets to the next generation, it meanders through the present and makes pitstops through the past. The film’s loose structure allows it subjects — residents of Africatown and direct descendants of Clotilda survivors like Emmett Lewis, Jocelyn Davis and Lorna Woods — to steer the narrative’s direction. They speak with candor and a fierce protectiveness about their ancestors, whom they grew up learning about. Their histories, however fractured, have left them with a clarity of vision and purpose. For many of the residents, finding the ship is less about proving their story — which they know to be true regardless of who believes them — and more about filling in the gaps of their own archives.

It’s a wonder to watch the town’s residents recount their ancestral legacy. And it’s even more moving to have those stories supported by rare footage, like the videos Hurston took of Cudjo Lewis during their interviews. These moving images, some of which are provided by folklorist and the film’s co-writer Dr. Kern Jackson, are a powerful testament to the community’s survival. Jackson walks viewers through some of the archival footage, his perspective encouraging a different way of seeing. “Look at how regal she looks,” he says of a video of Martha West-Davis, an elder Africatown member. See how these individuals talk about their past, witness the vastness of their archive, he urges.

These observations make familiar, damning questions about whose history gets told more acutely felt. The evidence of America’s history is all around, it just depends on where you look and who you ask. Many “whos” haunt the story of the Clotilda, most prominently the Meaher family (who could not be reached for comment) and the Fosters (whose descendant makes a brief appearance near the end). Descendant grapples with the wealth and power these white families still wield and deftly juxtaposes them against the conditions of the enslaved peoples’ descendants.

Despite the generations of people who have lived there and made the community, Africatown does not fully belong to these residents. Over the years, the area around the town has been leased by politicians to corporations more interested in bottom lines than people. The consequences of this encroachment are dire: poor air quality, noise pollution, cancer diagnoses.

When the ship is finally discovered — on Meaher property no less — questions of recourse move from the shadows to the center. In a country that extracts profits from anything, including a history it denies, Africatown’s residents are aware that people stand to make a lot of money from the Clotilda’s discovery — people who rarely showed a vested interest in its existence. When it comes to answers, Brown lets the residents speak for and among themselves. The director’s gaze, appropriately unobtrusive to begin with, all but disappears when the community members discuss how to respond to the attention.

Reparations are discussed seriously (another of the film’s achievements) and residents debate the specifics, but they agree on one truth: They do not want to be a part of any initiatives; they want to lead them. Descendant ends on a hopeful note, with a firm eye toward the community’s future generation, tenderly guided by their elders. No doubt that future projects about Africatown and the Clotilda will come from within.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Participant, Two One Five Entertainment, Concordia Studio
Director: Margaret Brown
Screenwriters: Margaret Brown, Dr. Kern Jackson
Producer: Margaret Brown, Kyle Martin, Essie Chambers
Executive producer: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter, Shawn Gee, Zarah Zohlman, Kate Hurwitz
Cinematographers: Justin Zweifach, Zac Manuel
Editors: Michael Bloch, Geoffrey Richman
Music: Ray Angry, Rhiannon Giddens / Dirk Powell
Sales: Cinetic

1 hour 48 minutes