One of the five best documentaries of 2022, per the National Board of Review, Margaret Brown’s film zeroes in on the people of Africaville, Alabama, and in particular the descendants of the 110 slaves brought in aboard the Clotilda, 1860. This was the last known slave ship to transport kidnapped Africans to America as human cargo, an illegal shipment undertaken as a bet by a local landowner, Timothy Meaher – who promptly burned and sank the boat to destroy the evidence.
The Africans would be emancipated by the civil war, but unable to afford to return to Africa they settled near Mobile, and many worked for Meaher and the other wealthy white families in the area. It was only with the posthumous publication of historian Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon in 2018 that the story of the Clotilda became more widely known, and it spurred a search to locate the wreckage. This is where director Margaret Brown picks up the story…
Descendant doesn’t just relate the history of a 200-year-old crime, it also looks at what’s changed – and what hasn’t – in the interim. There’s a glaring discrepancy between the standard of living enjoyed by the descendants of the slaves and the white families who called the shots back then, and still do today. The discovery of the wreck leads to excitement in Africaville and Mobile. It’s clear this is an opportunity to develop tourism. But who will profit from it, and in what form will reparations take, if any?
The film asks profound questions which could also apply to the colonizers in this country.
Margaret Brown’s fascinating film deals not only with the rediscovery of the ship by a team of marine archaeologists, but also with its impact on a community that has rallied together and has finally managed to establish a key element of their collective history. And while the past has a tendency to be claimed and reshaped by those in power, the residents of Africatown, Alabama, are not about to let that happen again.
Wendy Ide, The Observer
Descendant is worth seeing no matter who you are. For viewers like me, however, it engenders the reality that, no matter how hard anyone tries to whitewash history, our stories will forever continue to be told in full, by us and for us.
Odie Henderson, rogerebert.com
If you’ve ever wondered what ’holding space’ looks like in practice, the director Margaret Brown’s deeply attentive documentary Descendant provides moving examples… The film is rife with sympathetic and insightful subjects.
Lisa Kennedy, New York Times
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Margaret Brown, Essie Chambers, Kyle Martin
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