In 1808, two generations before the Civil War began, it became illegal to import humans to sell as slaves in America. But importation went on long after that, and the final ship bearing enslaved people reached American shores in the 1860s, just a few years before the 13th Amendment made enslaving a human illegal. Named the Clotilda, the ship’s human cargo was sold into slavery in Alabama. The ship itself was destroyed, burned, and sunk upriver, to hide the evidence. The punishment for importing slaves was severe, and the men who broke the laws to become rich from it didn’t want to be caught.
But for almost 150 years, the existence of the Clotilda was more or less denied because it was written out of the official record. The reason for that is almost painfully simple: Powerful families in Mobile, where the ship made landfall, were still benefiting from inherited wealth accumulated in the slavery era. But in Africatown — an enclave founded by 31 formerly enslaved people and many survivors of the Clotilda — the story was kept powerfully alive, and residents became activists to demand its inclusion in the historical record.
Descendant tells the true story of the ship and the descendants of the enslaved people who have fought hard to establish the truth of the Clotilda’s existence, both to better understand their own roots and to prove to the world that the crime actually happened. It declares that history cannot be brushed aside because it makes some people feel bad to remember it.
Director Margaret Brown, who grew up in the white part of Mobile, has explored the racial history of her hometown before, most notably in her 2008 film The Order of Myths, about the segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile. In Descendant, she leans heavily on the stories told by the residents and activists of Africatown. The result has heavy significance in a country ablaze with battles over whether the truth of slavery and other history can be taught with frankness to schoolchildren. Descendant demonstrates that when we ignore the real story, it doesn’t just steal people’s history from them. It impoverishes the future.
Descendant made a splash at its Sundance premiere in early 2022, where it won a special jury prize, and landed on the Obamas’ slate of films at Netflix, where it debuted on October 21. I spoke with Brown and the film’s award-winning producer, Essie Chambers, about the hard work of telling this story, its implications for the future, and the big reason it all matters. The following conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.
The story you’re telling in Descendant is literally true, but it also feels like a metaphor for something much larger: for the way people often try to ignore inconvenient history and hope it just goes away, as well as the involvement we all have in our history even if we are merely descendants of the people who experienced it directly.
When you were beginning to work on the project, did you anticipate that it would have such far-reaching implications?
Margaret Brown, director: I knew about it because I’m from there. Africatown is part of Mobile, where I’m from, but it’s a little bit further away. It was annexed by the city.
This film started with this community I’d already been involved with. But I think there were some flashes in my mind of images that started it. I started reading Zora Neale Hurston’s letters and got really obsessed with her and who she was. The film eventually became more focused on the community, but I was obsessed with her voice.
But I learned more about it as I worked on the film because two environmental organizations in town were already doing work there before we started. When you enter a story, you try to go in with an open mind and see what’s there, and I walked into a community that’s an incredibly activist community. The first thing we did was go to so many meetings, just to see what was going on. You’re immediately struck that there are people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who go to meetings every day. It’s very inspiring. I just opened my ears and tried to be present.
Essie Chambers, producer: I was immediately struck, when I joined Margaret, that when we talk about metaphors, what’s happening [in Africatown] is very much part of the history of Black America. So to be entering this at a moment when people like Nikole Hannah-Jones and Clint Smith and the 1619 Project are re-centering Black American history — the way that intersected with this story was mind-blowing.
I saw the film as part of Sundance this past January, where there were a number of movies about powerful people trying to ban the telling of true history because it made people uncomfortable. That’s a big element in this film as well. Did you encounter resistance as you were making the film, too?
Brown: I made another film there in 2008 called The Order of Myths. In that film, a lot of white Mobilians talked to me because it was about segregated Mardi Gras and my grandfather was part of the white Mardi Gras. So he opened all these doors for me, and all these white people talked to me. The film is about whiteness, more than anything else.
After that film came out and the city saw it, a lot of people who are in power were silent. People who would possibly be involved in the fate of Africatown kept putting off interviews. So there was this wall that wasn’t there before. I think the film is about these questions of justice and reparations, and I think when things become about money, white people get scared.
Chambers: In terms of the typical definition of reparations — like a stimulus package or something — that’s not something they’re actively discussing. But I think that there are all kinds of ways to look at reparations. There are land trusts and a lot of issues with the land. And I mean, the [powerful family the] Meahers still own a lot of land in Africatown.
So you have a crime that was committed. You have the most intact slave ship in history that has ever been found. You have the only group of people descended from Africans who established a community after being enslaved. It’s living history. There’s a possibility that DNA could [show] a direct line in a way that there has never been before in this kind of a scenario. I know that there are other examples of reparations that other cities are grappling with and actually acting upon.
Chambers: It’s a testament to the vitality of oral traditions. Oral history is not a lesser history. We were taught the history of a country that doesn’t exist — what does it mean? These people and their collective memory are what got us to this moment. What’s next is our responsibility, and our collective memory, and how we are going to hold people accountable and make sure that we change the narrative.
I’m a Black woman and I grew up in an all-white community in a small town. And [in school we] would get to the chapter on slavery and they would ask if I wanted to stand and speak. That was my experience of learning about slavery. It was horrifying.
So I think for Black Americans who have this incredibly rich history of passing stories down, it’s a complicated relationship to slavery, where we were taught to experience a lot of shame around it. I felt embarrassment and shame because I didn’t understand all of it. Imagine encountering this kind of story in a history book! It’s so inspiring.
I would imagine people will see this movie and immediately wonder how they can get involved.
Brown: The reason we worked with a company like Participant is that when a film ends, you have this weird postpartum feeling: What am I going to do now? You pour yourself into the film, but then there’s the impact campaign, which is real life. There are introductions being made [to organizations that already exist] and ways to amplify the work they’re already doing.
I guess that’s one big argument in favor of having a film like this premiere on a major streaming service, right?
Brown: Hell yeah.
Do you think there’s also an argument to be made specifically for telling this kind of story in the documentary form, rather than in a scripted film?
Brown: Yeah, I’m sure there will be one. But I consider myself an artist, not a journalist, though I guess I’m kind of a journalist. When we shot this film, we imagined it big in a theater, with these majestic people telling their story. Our characters are so inspiring.
The film’s images are really beautiful too.
Brown: Yeah, our cinematographers Zac Manuel and Justin Zweifach shot Garrett Bradley’s [Oscar-nominated documentary] Time too. We always imagined it majestic and large, befitting the story. But there’s power in the Netflix platform, with millions of subscribers.
The moment that really sticks in my mind is very early on, when we were in development. We were driving down a shell-lined road through Africatown’s Lewis Quarters. They’re surrounded by the lumber yards and you can smell the chemical plants. It’s very loud. Then you get down the road, and there’s this tiny community that is very well kept and very proud. It’s like this little hamlet. I’d been there years before.
But I was in the car with two other collaborators in the film, and we all just teared up. We were like, “How do we translate this feeling of being in this moment right now?”
So for years, I was trying to figure out what the shot was that would communicate that feeling. I was just like, “How do I communicate the smells, the feelings, what this moment is?”
I feel like you really experience the place through the film. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I have now. That kind of visual splendor is often left out of nonfiction filmmaking, but it goes a long way toward creating an emotional experience for the audience.
Chambers: That’s [Margaret’s] signature. Visual poetry.
Brown: I wanted people to feel the emotions that we felt as a team and talked about. Making the film was very collaborative. We were always discussing choices. We were always trying to figure out where my blind spots as a white person were.
The film ends at a point where there’s a lot of things that could happen to the fate of Africatown. How does the city as an entity respond to this story? Are they going to support the efforts of the people in Africatown who have been carrying their story through generations, through all these iterations? Or are they going to try to grab the money for themselves? That’s something we have wondered about as a team.
All those silent, powerful forces, they’re all still there. So we’ll have to see how they respond.
Descendant premiered on Netflix on October 21.