Filmmaker Margaret Brown deserves all the awards that Sundance can throw at her.
Her documentary “Descendant,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, will leave you inspired, shocked and angry — all at the same time.
Brown, a former Austinite and a native of Mobile, Al., takes her storytelling skills to a place near her birth, Africatown, the home of many descendants of the last slave ship to bring Africans to the United States.
The slave trade was banned in 1808. But in 1859, Mobile plantation owner Timothy Meaher bet that he could bring some slaves to Alabama without getting caught. He hired Capt. William Foster to take a ship, the Clotilda, to Africa and kidnap people and bring them back to America. The ship arrived in 1860. The slaves were unloaded at a place known as 12 Mile Island, near Mobile, and then Foster set the ship afire in the swampy area to cover up the crime.
The 110 slaves were sold to three different plantations, but were freed after the Civil War. The Meaher family refused any reparations, but they did sell the former slaves some of their family land, which became Africatown. The descendants of those people are the focus of the new documentary.
“Descendant” is about much more, however. It’s about how the Meaher family still owns much of the land near Africatown, and that they continue to lease the property to industrial and chemical plants. Those plants, in turn, have rained down pollutants on Africatown, resulting in high rates of cancer for the residents.
It’s a pattern that’s not unique to Mobile, of course. Black neighborhoods have long been cut up and zoned for industries and practically erased. And Brown uses her camera well to spotlight that, filming residents as they stroll through highly industrialized areas that used to be the site of family homes.
All of this comes to light in the context of a National Geographic expedition to find the remains of the Clotilda — and they were found 2019.
For the residents of Africatown, however, the discovery brings mixed emotions. Some are relieved, feeling that they finally know what they were always told by their ancestors was true. Some wonder whether the residents of Africatown will have any say over what happens to the remains of the ship, and whether those remains will end up as some sort of tourist attraction. And with proof of the Meaher crime, some descendants frankly want reparations.
Brown takes us through the complications by focusing on the residents of Africatown. Among them are Joycelyn Davis, a cancer survivor, and Veda Tunstall, both of whom are concerned about what happens next. They’re glad that an Africatown Heritage Museum is set to open this year. But in comments after the screening, Tunstall said bluntly that she wants the various polluting industries to get out of Africatown.
Also playing a prominent role in the documentary is Emmett Lewis, a descendant of Cudjoe Lewis, the last survivor from the Clotilda. He died long ago and Emmett frequently visits his grave in Africatown. Cudjoe was also the subject of a 1926 video by Zora Neale Hurston, the Florida author and filmmaker who specialized in Black history and folklore. In fact, Hurston wrote a book in the 1930s called “Barracoon” about Cudjoe, using his vernacular, but it was never published until 2018.
You might wonder why this documentary is so important, and it wouldn’t be important at all if not for the cooperation of the people of Africatown with a white director who had to gain their trust.
But the people of Africatown are now reclaiming their past, their history, their ancestors — something that many African-Americans have been denied.
And in that context, it’s important to bring up a quote from James Baldwin, something that the moderator of a panel after the Sundance screening mentioned. Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Brown, who examined segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile in her 2008 documentary “The Order of Myths,” says she reached out numerous times to various Meaher family members, but no one would participate in the film, in effect not facing the past. And that raises the questions: Will justice ever be served? And what would justice be?
Ramsey Sprague, an environmental justice activist who is working with residents of Africatown, has a few thoughts. And that might be good source of material for another documentary.