Filmmaker Margaret Brown wasn't planning on making another documentary after The Great Invisible.
Following the release of her 2014 film about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, Brown set her sights on exploring new territory as a filmmaker. "I was trying to get a narrative film off the ground," she says. "I wasn't in a documentarian headspace at all." Her plans changed when a producer approached Brown in 2018 about making a documentary centered around the Clotilda, the last American ship known to have illegally brought slaves from Africa to the United States. At the time, it was believed that the sunken wreck of the Clotilda had finally been discovered in Alabama.
"A producer literally wrote me a check at breakfast, and said, 'You have to go there. You have to start doing just a little bit of research,'" Brown recalls. The filmmaker was unaware in that moment that the wreck in question was not actually the Clotilda, nor could she have known that the ship would actually be found a year later in May 2019.
It ultimately didn't matter. Brown would spend the next four and a half years working on Descendant. The film focuses on the community known as Africatown, which was founded in the 1800s by West Africans brought to the Mobile, Alabama, aboard the Clotilda. Through its exploration of Africatown, Descendant addresses the systemic racism that has long affected the community's citizens, as well as the ways in which its people have kept the stories of their ancestors alive.
The film incorporates black-and-white archival footage that was shot in Africatown in the 1920s by Afro-Americana author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, while following the living descendants of Africatown's founders as they contend with the 2019 discovery of the Clotilde. The film is, in other words, uniquely ambitious. After all, what could be more challenging than doing justice to 160 years' worth of history within the span of one hour and 42 minutes?
In conversation with A.frame, Brown discusses the making of Descendant, the friendships she forged with its participants, and the unexpected connection the film has to one of her previous documentaries.
A.frame: The film begins with Kamau Sadiki speaking about how he and his fellow divers bring authentic slave trade beads with them when they go out looking for sunken slave ships. With a film like Descendant, which covers so many important issues, why did you choose to open it this way?
When Kamau talked about his diving ritual, I was so moved that I knew I wanted to use that moment in the film. Kamau is, in a certain way, a spiritual guide throughout the film. That's why I opened it and ended it with him. Even in the scene where they unveil the illustration of the Clotilda, Kamau makes sure to reframe the discovery for the Africatown community. When they're talking about reparations, he says, 'I want you guys to ask yourselves: What does justice mean to you? Take ownership of that.' He's someone I really look up to, so that's why I started with that moment. I saw it as a way into the film that was simple and moving.
He really feels like a voice of reason and wisdom throughout the whole film.
He's deeply connected to his mission, and his mission is horrific in a lot of ways. He talks about African cosmology in the film, and how, if you're not connected to your ancestors, you're kind of wandering and lost. So many African Americans don't know their history, and Kamau’s work is to find these slave ships that have either been abandoned or sunk below the sea and research what happened to them and why. Sometimes, the stories he finds are incredibly gruesome and awful, but that's the world he lives in. He lives in a world of repair and healing. His does deep, important work, and dives both physically and spiritually into it. I really look up to him. I think he's very wise.
This is a film about, in many ways, generational storytelling. Your use of archival footage really helps drive that home. How did you find the right balance of new and archival footage in the film?
For me, it's less about the archival footage itself and more about the storylines that the archival footage supports. There are a lot of layers in the movie. There's the layer of these families that run on parallel lines over 160 years. There's another layer, which is Zora Neale Hurston’s journey. And there's another layer of environmental racism in the story of Africatown. On top of those, we touch on the discovery of the Clotilda. So, I wasn't thinking about the film in terms of whether there was ever too much or too little archival footage in it. I was thinking about which pieces of footage would support the film's various threads. We also use live readings of Zora Neale Hurston’s writings, and I had to think about those in a similar way that I did about her footage, because they're featured throughout the movie. It was always about figuring out what piece of archival footage or quote supports each storyline.
Some of the archival footage is astonishing, especially the footage Zora Neale Hurston took of Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the Clotilda. What was the piece of found footage that most blew you away?
There were many things. I was completely obsessed with Zora. I read Barracoon, and I read her letters, which really made her come alive for me. As a white woman, of course, I can never completely identify with her journey through the South. However, we do similar things, because we're both anthropologists of film. In her letters, particularly, there were so many things that I identified with — namely, the way she wrote people differently. That reminded me of the chameleon-like quality that I think documentary filmmakers have to have. You have to be able to enter any situation and navigate it. That's your job.
Zora had that, so her work became a kind of guidepost for me. She's also just the coolest. [Laughs] She was remarkable, and the footage she took of Africatown is so well shot. I saw some of it for the first time on YouTube, but then Gideon C. Kennedy, our archivist, found more and it was better quality. There was some footage we'd never seen before of Cudjo, where he's talking directly to camera. The footage is silent, but he's talking directly to Zora. When we saw that, it made our mouths drop.
The interviews in the film feel very raw and open. As a filmmaker, what do you do in order to make your subjects feel so comfortable and vulnerable sharing their thoughts, especially when they are discussing topics like reparations?
I just got to know them for a really long time. I made this film over the course of four and a half years, and what you don't see onscreen are the friendships. You don't see the hours we spent talking over coffee, hanging out, filming, having conversations about COVID protocols and safety, or the hours we spent talking to [Africatown community organizer] Joycelyn [Davis] about all the questions she's always had. She's like a sleuth. She's always trying to figure out where things are connected and who knows what. With Veda [Tunstall], I felt like I formed an immediate connection.
I met Emmett Lewis through an activist group in Pritchard, which is a sister city to Mobile. These Black Lives Matter activists in Pritchard told us, 'You've got to meet Emmett. He's a descendant of Cudjo Lewis, and he's really coming into his own as a political person.' So, I met him and, when we first started filming him, it was clear to me that he is someone who — and he says this in the film — was told that it was his purpose in life to carry on his ancestors’ stories. Despite being only 27 years old when we filmed him, he was incredibly wise. I think when you're passing on a story for 160 years that you know is vitally important but was also suppressed, you become an incredible storyteller. And they all are. They're all great storytellers. They know the value of their ancestors' legacy. They know how important it is, and I think that shows in the film.
The film pointedly notes that you and your crew were unsuccessful in getting in touch with the Meaher family, whose ancestor paid for the Clotilda's illegal slave mission. Was there ever a moment when you thought you'd get to talk to them?
I actually made a film 15 years ago that had the Meahers in it, so I thought when this film started five years ago that I'd be able to meet with them. At the time, people thought they'd found the Clotilda. It turned out to be a different ship, but when everyone thought it was the Clotilda that had been found, The New York Times, National Geographic, The Guardian and all these huge papers were trying to get a comment from the Meahers. I thought, 'Well, they'll talk to me.'
We made a film 15 years ago called The Order of Myths about the segregated Mardi Gras celebration in Mobile, Alabama, and I had traveled with Helen Meaher because she was the Mardi Gras queen that year. The Black Mardi Gras queen that year was Stephanie Lucas, whose family was descended from the slaves that were brought to America on the Clotilda. That whole film became organized around that topic, so I thought I would be able to get the Meaher family to talk to me for Descendant. I was really surprised, at first, when they didn’t talk to me. I thought it might take a bit of convincing, but I didn't think it'd be a problem, you know?
By Alex Welch