From banning critical race theory in schools, to stealing artifacts for museum displays, colonialists and colonially-minded people have long sought to obscure Black history or repurpose it for their own agendas. In the soul-stirring documentary Descendant, director Margaret Brown explores one such example with the case of the illegal slave ship The Clotilda. Having transported enslaved Africans to Alabama decades after the slave trade was abolished, it is a chilling reminder of the persistence of evil when it goes unchecked.
While evil persists, so too does the memories of the those who were victimized. As the title suggests, Descendant gives the spotlight to the direct descendants of those stolen people who arrived in Alabama in 1860. Today, they continue to live in the community their ancestors named Africatown, passing on the stories of their experiences through the generations. Crucially, the existence and subsequent burning and sinking of the Clotilda is common knowledge to these descendants. But without the physical evidence, they await an official public acknowledgement of this shameful moment in history.
Much of Descendant is dedicated to the events surrounding the search for the Clotilda. In anticipation, Brown immerses viewers in the Africatown community and vividly connect us to the past with access to invaluable treasures. Through early-20th century footage and recited excerpts from Zora Neale Hurston’s book “Barracoon”, we get to see Cudjoe Lewis (the last known survivor of the slave trade in America) and hear his dialect through the written words. Additionally, other recordings from subsequent generations and present-day interviews further underline the direct, inarguable links to the past. Meanwhile, the camera frequently returns to serene images of the vast ocean and similarly contemplative “magic hour” scenes to establish a sense of mystique and transcendent spirituality to the central search.
Descendant would already be worth watching for its awe-inspiring investigation into the whereabouts and historical legacy of the Clotilda. But the film’s strongest attribute is that it is constructed with an eye toward to the future. As one descendant rightfully states, “I could care less about the ship.” And in the same vein, Descendant moves past the largely symbolic search to raise pertinent questions about environmental justice (the lands surrounding Africatown have been harmfully zoned for industrial use), the sustained power of the slave-owners’ descendants and the threat of gentrification upon the tourism-boosting recovery of the ship’s remains.
These underlying problems are undoubtedly an inextricable part of the community’s legacy. Still, Descendant resonates as a vital celebration of this community. Indeed, their pride, knowledge and activism is palpable. Through them, we are given a stirring reminder of the old adage “you have to know the past to understand the present.” And furthermore, to chart the right course for the future.
Descendant screened as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Head here for more coverage of this year’s festival.