‘Descendant’ review: Africatown documentary fills historical gaps
Margaret Brown’s powerful film showcases the importance of storytelling in the black community, as well as the tactics white America uses to silence those stories.
How should we best remember the dead? The critical African-American story told in Margaret Brown’s imperative film, “Descendant,” an unflinching investigation combining local stories with “Erin Brockovich” flair, seeks to answer that question. Because for the many black people living in Africatown, Alabama, where the last slave ship made landfall, remembering is what they do best.
See, in 1860, long after the 1808 Banning the Importation of Slaves Act was signed, two wealthy white men in Mobile, Alabama made a bet. Despite the law, they believe they could sail to Africa, capture Africans and bring them back as slaves without anyone knowing. Within months, they returned with 100 black captives. The two men burned and sank the ship, named the Clotilda, erasing all traces of the serious crime they committed.
Brown’s arrival in Africatown in 2018 for “Descendant” coincides with a one-of-a-kind national partnership to search for the wreck of the Clotilda in the waters surrounding Mobile. But Brown’s attention extends far beyond the ship. The passionate descendants of these Africans still live in the area, and they are eager not only to find the artifact, but to seek justice.
The opportunity for justice, however, requires a bit of luck. During the pandemic, like many, I tried to research my family history and found very few answers. In fact, for most black people living in America, tracing its history beyond 150 years is nearly impossible. The tactic of slavery, the miserable economic engineer that still powers the country today, demanded that the individual histories of black people be separated from their time in Africa. The stories were hit in many ways: by not assigning surnames to slaves, by selling loved ones, by forced assimilation through the banning of songs and cultural languages.
Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson is a producer on “Descendant,” and similar to his magnificent restoration of Harlem Cultural Festival footage in “Summer of Soul,” the film’s interests lie in rectifying black erasure. Much like Margaret Brown’s lens gliding through the water, barely penetrating the layer beneath the surface, it explores the various methods the people of Africatown employed to keep their history alive and the many tactics used by America white to silence them.
Footage from VHS tapes features interviews with the older generation, passing on stories like sacred heirlooms from ancestors. They all mention one name: Cudjo Lewis, the last local survivor of the slave ship, who lived until 1935. Filmmaker and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo in 1928, and took the only film of him still alive. Hurston used his writing and filmmaking (his short “Fieldwork,” partially included in this documentary, is an inescapable window into early 20th-century Black American history) as a way to capture the traditions and ways of black lives that soon receded into the ether of time. Cudjo’s images: his robust gait, his exuberant smile under a blanket of white hair, give you the impression of touching the past (testimony to Hurston’s tangible cinema). Hurston’s interviews with Cudjo would make up the bulk of his book “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo'”, which remained in obscurity, due to publishers’ reluctance to publish the work in the language. vernacular of his subjects, until 2018.
The release of “Barracoon” drew attention to the Clotilda. For Brown, however, the pressing mystery is not where the ship is hidden. Not only is the ship discovered halfway through the film, but the director never shows National Geographic’s search effort. Instead, she captures their town hall-style press conferences with the descendants. The ruling rightly puts descendants in the driver’s seat of their ancestors’ stories.
Moreover, for Brown, questions of why and how replace where. Brown captures the many links to the past scattered around Africatown: street names that trace their origins to Clotilda survivors and plantation owners, the local cemetery (its own kind of museum), and the land itself. The link to the past is even in the bodies themselves: black residents have a much higher frequency of cancers due to the toxic presence of a paper plant, demonstrating the grip that the practice of slavery still has on African Americans today.
Brown always comes back to his central thesis: How do we best remember our past? Is it through statues, street names, films, books, oral tales or museums? The inhabitants of Africatown want to think big, they dream of a museum. It is a logical desire. But Brown even questions the touristic ways we approach history: A descendant explains how people will say they’ve been to a place, or seen an artifact, but are unable to explain how it changed them .
Not all components of the “Descendant” works: The film opens with marine archaeologist Kamau Sadiki, but the emotional seeker doesn’t fit well into the narrative. William Foster’s descendant Michael appears, but aside from his unspoken belief that his ancestor was one of the “greatest” slave owners, his inclusion is more of a sideshow than a revelation.
Still, cinematographers Justin Zweifach and Zac Manuel (cinematographers on Garrett Bradley’s “Time”) paint the southern skies in mystical blues and candy-yellow sunbeams. The plaintive, mournful score provides an evocative start to Brown’s tableau, and the switch to African instruments lends memories a returning warmth. A feeling that stalks because knowing where you come from is a tender embrace. And as the saying goes, it often tells us where we are going. For the many black people who have kept the words of their ancestors alive, it is a birthright. In Brown’s must-see film filling a historical gap, a swipe at white-led black erasure, “Descendent,” teaches audiences how storytelling can be a revolutionary act.
“Descendant” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.