October 25th, 2022
DIRECTED BY: MARGARET BROWN
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
One of the most important messages of Descendant is to preserve our oral histories so that the past is not forgotten. If it wasn’t for some of these stories we might end up with a history that is slanted in one direction or another. Do we ever get the complete picture of any historical event with only a one-sided perspective? Descendant is a new documentary which shines light on the last known remaining slave ship that captured Africans and brought them to Alabama in 1860. This illegal act, and the stories associated with it, has been known to many of the slaves’ descendants and is now being shared with the rest of us.
One story surrounding this crime is the whereabouts of the ship, Clotilda, which was said to have been burned and sunk after arriving in America. Filmmaker Margaret Brown talks to many of the descendants who are now living in this part of Alabama known as Africatown. The film begins in 2018 when the search for Clotilda began in earnest. In addition to interviewing descendants, Brown speaks to archeologists, history enthusiasts, and scuba divers tasked, by their own personal interests, to search and find the remnants of the ship. She also utilizes footage dating back to 1927 when one of the original slaves was interviewed (which became the basis for the 2018 released book Barracoon, credited to the filmmaker and interviewer Zora Neale Hurston.) There is also videotape footage from the 1990s when some of the now-deceased descendants were interviewed about the ship and the subsequent details of life in the region after the slaves were brought there.
What also becomes part of the story is the cancer and other health complications that has pervaded the community with the encroachment of industry which polluted the area and destroyed many of the town’s homes. All of this leads to an interesting discussion and debate about justice and possible reparations for all that the community has experienced in the last 160 years. The question becomes “what can you do to make it right?” Some of the descendants don’t feel there is anything that can be done at this point since, in part, the ship owner is clearly long dead. Others feel that knowing the true history here can and should be passed down to future generations. One descendant shares her fears that once the ship is found it will bring in tourists who view the experience of seeing it as just another form of entertainment. What do people do after they’ve been there? Will they also share stories or help to contribute to the further growth of the community? What happens to the community in the aftermath? There is also mention of the people not part of the immediate region who might have a completely different take on its history and don’t want those ideas shaken. Can their perspective be changed?
All of these are very intriguing questions and Brown does an outstanding job of carefully presenting the reflections people have on the issues. The film’s narrative is very well-paced and heart wrenching at times. It was hard for me not to feel something for the community as there are multiple emotional layers to what this film uncovers. It’s about a people, a region, an historical record, and a reclaiming of a past that was previously erased. There’s also some cautious hope presented that perhaps other “lost” pieces of history will be found. None of this will happen if people don’t share their stories. Thankfully, the community here has, with the help of Margaret Brown, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian Institute, begun to spread awareness and to preserve what we now know about this last ship and Africatown.
I highly recommend the film to anyone with a heart who wants to see some form of justice for one of the many horrendous acts we’ve perpetrated on one another. Descendant is a sure-fire Oscar contender and deservedly so.
DESCENDANT IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX
Written by: Dan Pal