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Sundance 2022 Review: ‘Descendant’ a Triumphant Reclamation of American History

Sundance 2022 Review: ‘Descendant’ a Triumphant Reclamation of American History

Descendant is more than a phenomenal documentary; it is a majestic work of art that reveals the intentionally hidden epic story of the surviving descendants of Africans who were kidnapped and illegally sold into slavery one year before the Civil War began. 

On January 1, 1808, the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in the United States. Although slavery itself remained legal in America until 1865, transporting Africans across the Atlantic ocean to sell into slavery was a violation of federal law, punishable by death. However, in 1860 Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Irish-American slave trader, made a bet with a bunch of his cronies that he could traffic human beings from West Africa to Alabama, sell them, and get away with it, and he did. 

The brilliance of Descendant lies in director Margaret Brown’s ability to reflect America’s intricate relationship to slavery through the stories of the descendants of these illegally enslaved Africans and the silence of the descendants of the enslavers. In the talk-back after the screening at Sundance Film Festival, Margaret Brown shared that the inspiration to make Descendant came while shooting The Order of Myths, a 2008 Sundance film festival selection documentary about the segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. Brown learned that the white Mardi Gras Queen was a descendant of the Meaher family and the Black Queen of Mardi Gras was a descendant of one of the enslaved African families from the Clotilda, the name of Meaher’s ship. 

Brown had grown up in Mobile and had become acquainted with the Meaher family through her first film, but they did not want to talk about their ancestors or the Clotilda. The Meaher family silence piqued Margaret Brown’s curiosity. She started having conversations with her friend and co-writer/co-producer Dr. Kern Jackson about the Clotilda’s descendants, and the journey to this epic documentation of history began. Once slavery ended, the newly enslaved Africans created Africatown (Plateau, Alabama), which, like many Black towns that formed during the Reconstruction period, grew into independent communities. 

I loved the structure of this documentary. Just as I thought it was going to be all about finding this lost slave ship, there’s a turn. As the film introduces more of the community, the devastating modern-day environmental impact on Africatown is revealed. In a particularly poignant scene, Joycelyn Davis (a Clotilda descendant) recounts being at recess playing in airy white flakes that cascaded down from the industrial chimneys from the paper plant next door to the elementary school. As clips of all the papermill and factories that surround Africatown flash across the screen spewing chemicals into the community from all sides, Joycelyn recounts that as children, they didn’t know those flakes were dangerous to play in. 

Later, she points to a tiny medical device under her skin as she and another member of the community talk about how many people who live in Africatown have cancer and other chronic illnesses directly linked to a lifetime spent living next to factories exposed to pollution. 

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The story elegantly detours to a lesson on environmental injustice as environmentalist Ramsey Sprague participates in an Africatown community organizing workgroup. He breaks down the town’s zoning process, stating that many of the descendants who owned the enslaved Africans from the Clotilda now were creating public policy and were even owners of the factories that were poisoning Africatown. 

From this point on the filmmakers are able to simultaneously weave the two storylines together seamlessly. Through this narrative, it’s plain to see how diabolical slavery was and how perverse our system currently is. Descendant shows how history is easily erased and rewritten. After the Clotilda is discovered, we get to see in real-time how the descendants of the slave owners automatically set the wheels in motion to create a profit-driven tourist attraction to exploit the Africatown community again. But through the unapologetic determination of Africatown community activists, we bear witness to the resilience of this loving community.  

The cinematography of Descendant is stunning. The symbolism of water and earth bonded to freedom and hope for the future made me weep. Composers Ray Angry, Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops), and Dirk Powell craft a beautifully haunting sonic landscape that elevates the film to even higher heights. 

Clips from Zora Neal Hurston’s documentary film footage of Cudjoe Lewis (the subject of her recently published book Barracoon: The Story of The Last “Black Cargo”) and other founding members of Africatown in the late 1920s were placed in just the right moments. 

Descendant touched my heart deeply. I don’t know my African ancestors, but I am connected to their pain through my fear of water and to their resilience through my connection to the earth. Witnessing Kamau Sadiki’s (Slave Wrecks Project/Diving With a Purpose) commitment to his community through his work in the water was inspiring. He said that before every dive he and his team have a ritual involving blessing a small cowerie shell and placing the shell in his dive suit pocket. While underwater, he listens for the call of the ancestors to guide him. 

That moment broke me down yet again only to be lifted up by the glorious glow on the faces of the Clotilda descendants as they realized the vocal histories passed down for generations were validated by finding the ship. The descendants are living testimonies of what resilient liberation is. 

As the film concluded, alone in my rec room with tears in my eyes, I stood up and applauded. Descendant is one of the best documentary films I have ever seen.

Descendant premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.  

Directed by Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths).

Executive produced by Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, Shawn Gee, Zarah Zohlman and Kate Hurwitz.

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