SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Halfway through writer-director Margaret Brown’s Descendant, Marine Archeologist Dr. James Delgado announces, “It’s one thing to study history, it’s another to touch it.” The current fight to keep historical perspectives from schools seems to be an inciting catalyst for the importance of films such as this. Brown’s investigational documentary follows the residents of Africatown, Alabama, who seek to raise the last slave ship that made landfall in 1860, for without having actual physical artifacts, history can be reshaped, or even worse, erased.
The schooner Clotilda, the last remaining slave ship that brought over 100 captured enslaved Africans, years after it was already illegal. After it pulled into port in Mobile, Alabama, the owner quickly destroyed the vessel in an attempt to cover up his crime. What begins as a stirring, fascinating chronicle of the effort to locate and raise the ship turns into an infuriating tale of corporate criminality on the level of the underseen The Devil We Know.
Africatown, Alabama, is the city that now rests in the coastal region from which the ship set out and returned. In the years following, it has been increasingly encroached on by manufacturing plants that have environmentally tainted the swaths of lands surrounding the community. One of its residents, Joycelyn Davis, proclaims that, though interesting, the focus is not the Clotilda. “I could care less about the ship,” she soberly states.
“…seek to raise the last slave ship that made landfall in 1860.”
Descendant soberingly follows her lead. While it devotes footage to the dive to identify the vessel, its tendrils stretch out into the surrounding community and the battle of its inhabitants to receive recompense for decades of environmental racism to which it’s been subjected, from the selling of land by the very same family who owned the illegal slave ship. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, about 1200 residents are suing International Paper, which built a paper plant on land in 1928. The suit alleges the plant released dioxins and furans (highly toxic compounds directly linked to cancer) into the air, ground, and water in amounts that exceeded EPA limits. Industrialization, pollution, and high cancer rates threaten to erase Africatown and its unique history.
Throughout the film, the words (and footage) of author Zora Neale Huston are recited, particularly Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, first written in 1931 but not published until 2018 due to Hurston’s insistence on writing in the dialect of Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last living descendants of the Clotilda. Brown and cinematographers Justin Zweifach and Zac Manuel capture the stories from those with direct lineage wandering through the scattered tombstones and monuments that sit in the shadows of these large processing plants.
Descendant combines detailed, intimate moments with unearthed VHS recordings and documents to provide access to Africatown, which was once home to around 10,000, now diminished to about 3,000. But its remaining citizens are now seeing industrial plants poison their land. The vessel’s discovery provides an exasperated exhale but acknowledges that it’s only to catch a breath before the work of healing for the residents of Africatown can begin.
Descendant screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.