Margaret Brown’s fine and uncomfortable documentary film delves deep into America’s troubled relationship with slavery, turning its lens on the last known ship transporting Africans illegally into the country.
In 1860, fifty-two years after the abolishment of the Atlantic slave trade, Timothy Meaher, an influential white businessman and human trafficker from Mobile, Alabama, took it up as challenge to smuggle Africans on the slave ship Clotilda.
Because of the enormity of the offence, Timothy and William Foster, the vessel’s captain, docked at Mobile Bay, unloaded their human contraband, and proceeded to set fire to the ship in an undisclosed location. The 110 West Africans who were forcibly extricated from their homeland to work as slaves rallied after the Civil War to form the Africatown community. Cut to the late 2010s, and their African American descendants are still seeking answers. History textbooks have seemed to omit this key part of Alabama’s fraught association with slavery.
The invaluable stories passed on by word of mouth across generations are the only surviving remnants of the original Africatown folk.
Passages from Zora Neale Hurston’s nonfiction book, Barracoon, provide much needed solace to the people. Published as late as 2018, Hurston’s work dates back to 1927, a time that had no takers. The book is based on interviews with Cudjo Lewis, presumably the last known adult survivor of the Clotilda. Written from Cudjo’s first-person perspective in the vernacular, it lends insight into his community’s collective longing for home and a piece of land to call their own. Timothy Meaher makes Cudjo feel indebted for “all that he’s done for the slaves” instead of entertaining his request to share a small portion of his vast acreage.
Descendant is a powerful tale of reclaiming one’s fractured past. For the residents of Africatown, it is, at once, a quest for identity, truth and closure. At its core, it represents the fight against total erasure—historical and cultural. The physical ship is only a part of the story. From the innumerable interviews conducted of descendants, folklorists, activists, archaeologists, scuba divers, etc., there is an unspoken need for accountability and justice. The topic of reparation comes up more than once in this searing documentary. While most descendants wish to heal and don’t believe that racial discrimination passes on seamlessly from generation to generation, there is no denying that some white families’ accumulated wealth is a direct result of privilege stemming from the dubious link with the slave trade.
The varied perspectives emanating from the people of Africatown and their sense of unity to seek the whole truth make Descendant arresting. Even in the moments it gets heavy and depressing, it is the empathy shown towards the many characters on screen that pushes you to keep watching. The influence of the white community in Mobile, Alabama and the Deep South is a theme that keeps resurfacing. A middle-aged white man is interviewed at one stage, where he explains that his ancestors owned hundreds of slaves.
He acknowledges the shame and guilt he feels inside, and that the white privilege can been seen in terms of his financial means. He makes a telling point about the southern states still being proud of all their Confederate heritage (showcasing their icons prominently) and that that kind of problematic attitude is in sharp contrast to most other failed discriminatory ideologies across the world. With the Meaher name splashed over Mobile, it is a wonder why the current members stay under the radar. Despite repeated requests to be part of the documentary, not one person from the family goes on record. Alluding to their almost-incognito public status, a descendant says that she wouldn’t even know if she’s standing next to them at the supermarket.
With toxic effluents being emitted from the heavy industries around Africatown, several black locals allege that their respective cancers can be attributed to the carcinogens coming out of the factories. A deep-seated power structure involving rich white families and the mayor’s lumber company (known to have encroached upon land in Africatown for years) poses a serious threat to progress.
An unlikely introduction between a Cudjo Lewis descendant and a William Foster descendant leads to a group boat ride to see the claimed spot of the wreck. During an open discussion, the latter admits that though the conditions for the slaves were both appalling and degrading, his forefather treated them with kindness, which he didn’t have to do. The discomfiture, notwithstanding, an African American activist counters by saying, “It’s tough for me to make a qualitative difference in how you treat a slave, right? Good or bad. I mean, you’re still a slave. A good master, a bad master, it’s equal in my book.” The dignity with which he decimates the highly problematic take is representative of this hard-hitting documentary and the people it is based on.
Director: Margaret Brown
Streaming on: Netflix