Release Date: October 21, 2022
Production Company: Higher Ground Productions | Participant | Take One Five Entertainment
Descendant is a historical documentary that resulted from spending several years with the people of Africatown, a Black American community in Mobile, Alabama. The residents of Africatown are descendants of the enslaved Africans transported on the Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive in the United States. Congress had made the importation of enslaved people illegal in 1808, but the Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay with 110 persons in 1860 after local enslaver Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could smuggle slaves into the country from the Kingdom of Dahomey. After offloading the cargo, the ship’s captain had the Clotilda burned and scuttled to cover the evidence.
After the Civil War, 32 of the West Africans came together to form the Africatown, including Cudjo Kazoola Lewis. Cudjo lived until the 1930s and his story was documented by Zora Neale Hurston in the 1920s which was finally published as Barracoon in 2018. Descendant includes people of Africatown reading passages of Hurston’s book aloud as well as some archival footage that Hurston made of Cudjo.
The main focus of the documentary is locating the wreck of the Clotilda, which was identified in 2019. The residents of Africatown deal with the tension that comes from the joy of finding a connection with the past the pain of their ancestors, and the fear that they will not be able claim their own history. Additionally, the current standard of living for Africatown’s residents is affected by it being surrounded by industrial development which has contributed to higher rates of cancer. If that’s not outrageous enough, the land that is leased to the industries is owned by the Meaher family, the descendants of the same man who enslaved the people of the Clotilda!
This is a powerful movie and I think Brown does a great job of capturing various point of view and allowing the viewer to sit with the discomfort of unsettled issues. The movie doesn’t have a lot of voiceovers or talking heads to explain what’s going on but spends a lot of time with the camera following in-depth conversations among community members and with outsiders. I was also excited that one of the community members and activists is Cleon Jones, famous for playing with the New York Mets in the 60s and 70s.
If you have Netflix, I highly recommend watching this film.