Probably all of the people in Margaret Brown’s documentary Descendant know their ancestors, but they regard that privilege with ambivalent emotions. These participants, mostly live in Africatown, Alabama. They can trace their ancestry to stolen people on board the Clotilda, the last slave ship that three white men allegedly illegally brought to Mobile. That may be enough pieces for some people. But for most of these interviewees, finding the ship will turn the stories their elders told them into an actual, undisputable, weighty history. Descendant covers the search for the Clotilda and connects the ship with the issues that its unwilling passengers face today.
Descendant seems like a straightforward Netflix documentary but there’s a lot of things that it argues for outside of historical record, and those things include art and language. Some of the documentary’s participants read passages of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon. That posthumous work is about the story of Clotilda’s last survivor, Cudjoe Lewis. Hurston writes Lewis’ words in the regional vernacular at a time when doing so wasn’t politically incorrect. As someone who is not Black I don’t have a dog in that fight. But there’s something significant about the fact that Africatown’s residents are reading Hurston. They’re telling Lewis and the Africans’ story of creating Africatown with his own voice.
Slavery is an obviously difficult historical topic to cover. Some white people today are trying to distance the time between today and the time when Afroatlantic Slavery was legal. They’re even dismissing slavery altogether or want to bring it back. But evidence of it happening do surface. Specifically, as germane to Descendant, reporters found one piece of the Clotilda, which led to them discovering more pieces. Despite the efforts of the descendants of a slave owning family to destroy those remains, historians found enough pieces to recreate the ship. Some of the African descendants get to see that recreation, and the documentary makes its viewers feel the heartbreak of history.
That heartbreak does have its waves in the present day. The Maehers are the family whose ancestor stole Africans from the then Dahomey Kingdom. Today, they sell parts of the land next to Africatown to chemical plants. It’s as if to intentionally poison the Black population they exploited decades ago. But it’s not all about heartbreak and Descendant has scenes that isn’t always about commemorating the Clotida. Some scenes include Black activists teaching children how to prevent drowning and how to scuba dive. The documentary juxtaposes images of nature and contemporary life. In doing so, it shows a different kind of Black activism where Black people learn their history and live in the present too.
Watch Descendant on Netflix. Barack Obama serves as an executive producer. It also has a one night only engagement at the Hot Docs cinema next month.