Margaret Brown’s haunting new documentary about an Alabama town and the truth that must be reckoned with.
Alabama filmmaker Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths, The Great Invisible) spent four years working on her latest documentary, Descendant, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival this weekend. The residents of Africatown, off the coast of Mobile, are descendants of captives from an illegal slave ship, the Clotilda, which was burned in 1860 in an attempt to destroy evidence. Descendant centers the stories of the descendants, who have to speak for their ancestors.
Through oral histories — including Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, told to her by one of the last living survivors of the Clotilda — the people of Africatown have long been aware of the legacy, despite the location of the ship having been lost. Community leader Cleon Jones comments, “I don’t need the proof; I’ve lived with the proof all my life.” Along with a number of townspeople, the film also introduces the viewer to others searching for the sunken ship.
Brown’s film keeps the tone suspenseful, yet meditative, as the truth is uncovered. The voices of the descendants are given primary importance and respect. Various townsfolk are filmed reading passages from Barracoon, shown in different spots from a porch in town to a plantation house. Archived video from folklorist Dr. Kern Jackson, a co-producer on Descendant, is incorporated into the documentary so even recent ancestors can be heard.
The relationship built between filmmaker and subjects during filming is shown in the vulnerability and openness we witness from the descendants. This frank quality of the work makes Descendant as compelling and thought-provoking as it is. Brown and her editing team also show a stunning mastery in the weaving of related topics — the environmental racism seen in Africatown’s zoning; the town’s current economic ties to the family of the Clotilda’s owner; the white supremacist mythology venerating the Confederacy — into the overall storytelling framework. A lesser film might feel cluttered, but the editing is well considered here.
Brown and her crew have created an emotionally engaging work about history and truth that especially seems timely as a certain political minority in our country argues against any possible educational discussion involving race and slavery that could make a white person feel guilty. There’s no way any documentary can paint a complete picture of a townspeople and their history, but Descendant comes as close as it can.