History exists beyond what is written. In the new documentary, “Descendant,” the residents of Africatown, which is located in Mobile, Alabama, have shared stories about their African origins for generations, and for a large chunk of time — only amongst themselves — because this community was founded by enslaved ancestors who were transported in 1860 aboard the last known and illegal slave ship, The Clotilda.
Though the ship was intentionally destroyed upon arrival, its memory and legacy weren’t. Now, the long-awaited discovery of The Clotilda’s remains offers this community a tangible link to their ancestors and validation of history so many tried to bury.
Directed by Margaret Brown, the Southern-born storyteller explores the interplay between memory and evidence and the imbalance of power that persists between the descendants of Timothy Meaher, the man who chartered the illegal expedition, and the descendants of those who were enslaved aboard it. To wit, the Meaher family owns much of the heavily industrialized area that surrounds residential Africatown. It’s infuriating that elevated cases of cancer and illness are prevalent there, but many residents refuse to leave or can’t afford to leave.
Fourteen years ago, Brown made a feature about Mobile’s still openly segregated Mardi Gras celebration. “The Order of Myths” centered on the tangled interconnected histories of two Mardi Gras queens, one Black and one White.
The White queen, Helen Meaher, was a direct descendant of Timothy Meaher, who local legend said had brought the last slave ship to America, illegally in 1860. The Black queen, Stefannie Lucas, was a direct descendant of one of the African captives who was allegedly brought to America on that ship.
The ship was called The Clotilda, and the parallel histories represented by these two girls made up the emotional core the film was built around.
While making “The Order of Myths,” Brown learned more about the enclave called Africatown, which is an isolated residential area of Mobile and surrounded by big industry and the mythology of the last slave ship, The Clotilda
In 2018, Brown received an article saying that a ship’s wreckage had been found in the Mobile River, and it was thought to be that of The Clotilda and two weeks later, she headed to Alabama to begin documenting.
What struck the filmmaker was how differently the story was being told within different communities (White vs African American) of Mobile, Alabama. Here is a town filled with
family and community secrets. Brown discovered that the White people, most particularly those directly connected to the story, didn’t want to talk about this story at all. Silence.
But those from Africatown, on the other hand, was a strong community filled with pride and respect of their ancestors and their connection to Africa and the deeply connected to its history, celebrating and conjuring its story in present and dynamic ways as it confronts current day challenges.”
The story of The Clotilda was not a “myth” or a “legend” as it was often referred to by White people, but an already present history, just one that was not told or accepted as the dominant “American” narrative. Brown came to recognize that this rich and insistent connection to the past represented something quite meaningful well beyond Africatown and Mobile, something that touches on the experience of the African American community as a whole, and really on the whole nation’s understanding of itself.
In the same year, 2018, the book “Barracoon” was released and it featured interviews with Zora Neale Hurston that she conducted with the last survivor of The Clotilda,Cudjo Lewis, in 1928. For the first time, Africatown residents could read the transcribed words of an ancestor and founder of their community, including memories of his capture from his West African village and the voyage across the ocean.
The filmmaker admits that the story of the Africatown community is not hers to try to tell. Although as a Southerner, she was always fascinated with the Old South where hiding the truth seems to be part of the culture and it’s that attitude that seems to be used to hide more truths.
And Brown’s documentary work examines the American South from a seminal film on Townes Van Zandt “Be Here to Love Me” to the impactful story of the BP oil spill’s lasting impact in “The Great Invisible,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW a few years ago. Her film “The Order of Myths,” which examined Brown’s native Mobile, Alabama and its still segregated Mardi Gras celebration, won numerous awards including a Peabody and the Truer Than Fiction Independent Spirit Award. She’s also done short formwork for the New York Times and Field of Vision, and recently directed an episode of “Dirty Money” for Netflix.
Here is what director Margaret Brown had to reveal about what the citizens of Africatown want.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: In your documentary “Descendant” you show the devastating impact on the citizens of Africatown aka Mobile, Alabama, where factories sprung up around their homes, producing toxic, cancerous elements in the air, soil and water. Can you provide us with an update?
MARGARET BROWN: They are an astonishingly organized community. There are like 2,000 people in Africatown, although many people come from parts of the city, there are activism efforts there … and there are two environmental groups. Their level of activism is so inspiring to know that people care.
LAS: What does the African American community of AfricaTown want?
MB: The community, as a whole, does not have one thing that they want, except for the story to be told. There is a website and they want their story to inspire others.
Directed By: Margaret Brown Produced by Essie Chambers, Kyle Martin. Executive produced by Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, Shawn Gee, Zarah Zolman, and Kate Hurwitz.
TRT: 109 min
This story has been edited for length and clarity. After the filing the story the documentary has been acquired by Netflix.