‘Descendant’ review: Documentary elevates passed-down memories

Margaret Brown’s powerfully disturbing documentary, Descendant, tells the truth about the submerged tale liberated for an enclave of Alabamaans whose ancestors were the last slaves dragged to American shores aboard the Clotilda in the 1860s.

The operation was illegal at the time, and rumor had it that the slave ship’s owner, Timothy Meaher, subsequently burned and sank it to hide his crime. The horror was silenced, however, when the only ones who kept the reality of sin alive through a century of ongoing violence and fear were the formerly enslaved themselves and their descendants in Africatown, the community founded by the ship’s survivors near Mobile . Even legendary folklorist Zora Neale Hurston’s 1931 text “Barracoon,” which captures the oral testimony of long-lived survivor Cudjo Lewis, was not published until 2018. However, its release spurred a newfound search for the remains of the Clotilda, which were definitively located in the Mobile River in 2019.

Descendant brings us to Africatown at this moment of sobering relief and sharper focus for its residents who have longed for their passed memories – Cudjo’s lineal descendant, Emmett Lewis, a young man with dreadlocks and a tired voice, tells us that he it’s been heard and felt all his life – to be recognized as significant American history.

That harrowing past is something Brown, herself a Mobile native, previously explored in her excellent 2008 documentary, The Order of Myths, about her hometown’s segregated Mardi Gras celebrations and their connections to the enduring inequality of the powerful Meaher family the fighting Clotilda descendants. The discovery of the ship not only removes the need to call it myth, but also makes it worth facing the reality of slavery again as a subject of clarity, memory, and redemption.

With Descendant, Brown wisely chooses to be respectful and poetically vigilant, rather than imposing, as her use of archival footage shot by Hurston suggests: she adds to the anthropological empathy of a pioneering black filmmaker, updating the conversation and watched the witnesses. Brown knows this isn’t her story, it’s an unfolding story around Storytelling that she diligently observes at meetings, get-togethers and intimate interviews. From there, the necessary questions about legacy and redemption have room to become truly vivid and emotional, as they are addressed by the descendants themselves and supporting figures such as Kamau Sadiki, a Smithsonian-affiliated diver who specializes in slavewrecks, and the attorney for environmental justice, Ramsey, Sprague.

There are grace notes throughout, from descendants reading excerpts from “Barracoon” to the plaintive, root-tinged score (by Ray Angry, Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell). Repeated images of rippling water not only nod to what was buried for so long, but serve as a stark reminder that what appears constant is always changing, past and present, and vice versa. Brown also frames Africatowners against their surroundings in a way that conveys their resilience as a close-knit, embattled, and resilient community over time.

A man looking out to sea in the documentary "descendant."

Emmett Lewis in the documentary Descendant.


Even without Meahers on camera (having declined Brown’s interview requests), her presence in the image of belching smokestacks, a looming factory in the background, or when descendant Darron Patterson laments how rabid, poisonous the Meahers are, still seems accurately portrayed by Die Industrialization all around them has changed things, the eerie timing of a lumber truck speeding by. What was an eerie gentility about separate cultures in The Order of Myths was intensified here by a much more articulated, probing and vexing portrayal of the entangled legacies of slavery. (As the story is inconvenient, an on-screen map notes that the Clotilda slaves came from Dahomey, which would be decades after the events surrounding the abolition of abolition dramatized in recent hit The Woman King. )

From ghostly marker to discovery promising renewal, can Klotilde finally steer the imbalance of white-oppressed, black-preserved history toward justice and healing? As we see residents mix celebration with planning for the future, Descendant makes clear how an African American-run memorial to their experience, anchored by physical evidence, would help create a dominant, damaging Lost Cause narrative to correct that has been committed to the world for too long awareness of the country.

For descendant Joycelyn Davis, a survivor of the cancer that plagued so many in Africatown, bitterness at the slave ship’s impact on her community became an energetic pride in keeping her story alive. For descendant Veda Tunstall, however, hearing her mother relate to a sense of “completeness,” the threat of further annihilation at the hands of powerful outside opportunists bent on capitalizing on her community’s potential halts her optimism. “I don’t want to be one Part of it,” she says of the long-overdue reparations. “I would like be it.” What “Descendant” makes painfully clear is that the witnessing must go on.


Rated: PG, for thematic material, short speech and smoking images

Duration: 1 hour, 49 minutes

To play: Available October 21 on Netflix

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-10-20/review-descendant-documentary-alabama-slave-ship-clotilda ‘Descendant’ review: Documentary elevates passed-down memories

Sarah Ridley

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