Descendent, Margaret Brown’s documentary about the search for America’s last known slave ship, begins with a distant figure kayaking through a sun-dappled swamp. Green leaves blanket the water’s surface and the rower’s strokes are slow and meditative. Nothing to see here, just a man – a Black man, we gather, as he glides closer – in nature, accompanied by the buzz of insects and the lone egret that is keeping watch. It’s a strikingly bucolic beginning for a work about so devastating a subject. We’re in for something different here, is the film’s opening gambit. It’s an unspoken promise that Descendent lives up to.
Brown, a white native of Mobile, Alabama, returned to her hometown to record the search for the Clotilda, believed to be the last slave ship in American history. Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company along with Questlove (a descendant of enslaved people on the Clotilda), the film is a layered and slyly defiant portrayal of a community saddled with a shared history of unspeakable tragedy and violence. The treasure in this story is not a sunk vessel, as the interviews with its more literal-minded subjects might suggest, but a sense of justice and equilibrium that has been denied to a people that have been passing down their trauma from one generation to the next.
In 1860, more than half a century after the slave trade was abolished, Alabama landowner Timothy Meaher is said to have made a bet that he could smuggle a slave ship without being caught so he orchestrated the capture of 110 Africans from what is now Benin. The enslaved people were made to wait out two weeks in the Alabama swampland before being divided into three groups and smuggled to their purchasers. Meanwhile, the Clotilda was burned and sunk to conceal the crime.
Five years later, when slavery was abolished, the Meaher family cooked up another repugnant scheme: rather than take responsibility for their crime and provide for the newly freed people, they spun a profit from them, selling them parcels of land in an undesirable area three miles north of downtown Mobile, where zoning rules would accommodate industry to this day. This quarter, presently cut through by an unsightly highway and swarmed by factories and harmful pollutants, is now called Africatown. The enslaved people, and their children and grandchildren, were told that they’d be lynched if dared breathe a word of what had happened. Passing down an oral record has been their only way of preventing their own erasure.
Brown follows the ship’s retrieval, but it’s the mostly white teams of scuba divers and historians and investigative reporters who get starry-eyed talking about scanning historical records for clues and dredging procedures. The Africatown community is more circumspect about the search party. “I don’t want the momentum of the story to be just about the ship,” says Joycelyn Davis, who has childhood memories of refuse from the paper plant raining down “like snow” on her school playground, and who recently survived a cancer diagnosis.
With Zac Manuel and Justin Zweifach’s stunning cinematography and her own good sense not to place herself in the story, Brown delivers a powerful meditation on damage. Descendant serves as a stark reminder that “damage control” is a contradiction in terms.
Midway through the film, the search team informs an assembly of Africatown residents that they have found the Clotilda. Those gathered offer dim applause and nod their heads. Their expressions are cautious, troubled.
For all its cultural currency, closure can be a mixed bag. The eventual discovery of the ship’s remains inspires local news segments and the introduction of a new “holiday” – the governor of Alabama can’t personally make it to a convention of Africatown residents, but sends an emissary to proclaim that 8 February 2020 shall go down in history as “Honor the Descendants of the Clotilda Day”. Joycelyn Davis is seen sitting on a bench at the Smithsonian, facing an indoor fountain that is part of the permanent Slavery and Freedom exhibition. Davis doesn’t look too appeased. Reflect all we want, this is a story that will never sit well.