(USA, 108 min.)
Dir. Margaret Brown
Programme: U.S. Documentary Competition
Margaret Brown’s Descendant flows in numerous directions and side streams much like the river where the story is situated. The result is an important journey that is hampered, unfortunately, by a lack of focus during the voyage. However, the core story of history, remembrance, and restitution is so compelling. Many of the participants are also very engaging, so its cinematic limitations are occasionally outweighed by the nature of what’s being shared.
The Clotilda was a 90-foot schooner and one of thousands that travelled the waters of the Atlantic. What makes the ship historically resonant is that it was used in a macabre bet. In 1860, a mere year before the American Civil War broke out in earnest, an Alabama slave-owner named Timothy Meaher made a bet. The goal was to bring Africans over, even as the importation of new slaves onto the shores of the U.S. had been made a capital crime.
The ship left West Africa and, after 70 days, unloaded its human cargo under cover of night. The ship was then burned and sank in what was reported to be 20 feet of water. The groups were then split in three, with a section sold to local plantations. When slavery was officially abolished a half decade later, these last arrivals served as a living reminder of America’s genocidal practice well into the 20th Century.
The descendants of the forced passengers on this doomed ship continue to live in a region dubbed “Africatown.” The area is a settlement by the free slaves who bought the land back from their previous owners. It’s an area with a rich and deep oral history, kept alive by the generations that have followed. Gravestones mark where many of the initial individuals who rode the Clotilda are laid to rest. Their family members continue to tell their stories to all who will hear them.
Combining historical footage of some of the last survivors of the Clotilda, mixed with contemporary interviews, folkloric interpretations, and even reading from a recently published memoir, we get a wide swath of memories and experiences detailed. Unfortunately, the narrative tributaries never quite meet as a story, which results a film that feels haphazard at times. Similarly, Descendant may limit the power of this central story in such a way that it doesn’t speak to a general audience.
With its nearly two hour running time, the film is never quite sure what it wants to be, whether that’s a historical retelling, a quest for the hidden ship, a rumination upon reparations, or a broader examination of how the scars of the past continue to be left unhealed.
There are brief sections that are extremely effective. A relative of the original captain, for example, reunites with those who were transported, making for some awkward yet perfectly human moments in which one must come to terms with the surrealism of that encounter. The environmental justice elements are particularly aimless, with no real clear thread to follow as larger notions of redlining and zoning are mixed in with the surrealism of former property having negotiated their own terms of freedom in order to settle in the area mere miles from where they first were brought over.
As the basis for further investigation, all the ingredients are there. A tighter structure and sharper focus would do wonders to shape the work into a more coherent film of the calibre it merits, but also to drive its very crucial and noble points home. There’s so much to cover, so many things finally being said aloud, and so many inherent contradictions and that the filmmaking gets in the way of the very story of a community coming together that it wishes to tell.
It’s increasingly easy to consider the crime of slavery something from the ancient past. Yet here, caught on film in the 1930s, in stories from the 1990s, and in artifacts from this decade, the tale of one ship and its descendants speaks to millions of voices that were silenced. As a film, Descendant is messy and frustrating, yet it’s undeniable how powerful this story is, which makes the delivery of its worthy message all that more disappointing.
Descendant premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.