2022 Sundance Film Festival Review

Descendant, 2022.

Directed by Margaret Brown.

SYNOPSIS:

Follows descendants of the survivors from the Clotilda, the last ship that carried enslaved Africans to the United States, as they reclaim their story.

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Margaret Brown’s (The Great Invisible) new film chronicles one largely forgotten community’s fight to preserve its ancestors’ tragic history, in turn delivering a towering documentary as rich as it is vital.

Descendant unfolds in and around Mobile, Alabama’s Africatown, where the last known illegal shipment of slaves was brought to the United States in 1860. The slaves were transported to Mobile on a scholar called the Clotilda by slave trader Timothy Meaher, who subsequently burned the ship in an attempt to conceal his actions.

Today, many of the slaves’ descendants still reside in the area, keeping their ancestors’ stories alive through the spoken word, all while hoping that the Clotilda might finally be discovered as an expedition is launched to trawl the surrounding waters for its wreckage.

Though for many people learning about their heritage might be a casual, passing fancy, for those whose ancestors were sold into slavery and whose descendants had their destinies forever altered, that desire for a connection to the past takes on a far more poignant urgency.

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The discovery of the wreckage would help transform a public myth never written in the history books into tangible, indisputable truth. For some, it would provide them a much-craved tactile link to their ancestors, being able to touch the wreckage of the ship which brought them to this land, or as one puts it, to touch “the last item in the US that commodified black people.” And then there are those hoping that the Clotilda’s discovery would open the floodgates for a community’s long-buried secrets to come rushing out.

Though it’s suggested that Timothy Meaher’s own descendants have made pains to conceal the sunken vessel’s current location, the survey operation kicks off regardless within an area that’s never been examined before. While Brown’s film clearly could’ve been centered explicitly around this mission, she sensibly follows the lead of one local resident, who cares less about the physical ship itself than what its discovery would represent.

And in May 2019 the Clotilda’s wreckage was indeed found, prompting Brown to consider a wider discussion about reparations for the descendants and society’s responsibility to compensate, in some small fashion, for the past. Through interviews with the locals, we gain varied perspectives into what reparations really mean, who should receive them, and whether or not Meaher’s living relatives deserve financial punishment.

These are thorny, fascinating questions, some feeling that Meaher’s descendants, as having no active part in what happened, should be left alone, while others view them as beneficiaries of white supremacy who have inherited assets amassed by slavery. Further complicating the post-discovery hubbub is how the story of the Clotilda should be carried forward from this point; such is the double-sided nature of the tourism possibilities, of benefitting the economy yet in a way that may only dubiously service the local community.

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It’s also important to consider that the ripples of suffering still continue today; Africatown is surrounded by heavy industrial activity which is believed to have caused an unnatural abundance of cancers and premature deaths in the area. Furthermore, with the local logging industry increasingly encroaching upon cherished land and Mobile’s mayor himself born into the lumber empire, the cycles of victimization haven’t abated.

Descendant does at least close with some encouraging, hopeful moments that suggest a brighter future for those who remain in Africatown. The story of the Clotilda is still unfolding as we speak, and the residents are still fighting the advances of local businesses, but no longer will a devastating untold history be left struggling for a voice.

Combining probing interviews with the town’s locals and exceptional archive footage – especially a rare glimpse of the Clotilda’s final living passenger, Cudjoe Lewis, in 1928 – this is a startling, affecting window into a circumscribed aspect of American history, and one now immortalized. Margaret Brown’s new documentary thoughtfully considers how a victimized community can heal from its inherited trauma, while offering flecks of hope for the future.

Flickering Myth Rating – Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.

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