Netflix documentary film “Descendant”, which was released on this Friday, is about one relatively unknown black American historical fact which deserves to be known more widely for good reasons. While it is surely informative to anyone unfamiliar with its main subject (Yes, I am one of such persons), the documentary also thoughtfully examines the long and persistent connections between the past and the present, and it is surely one of the most enlightening documentaries of this year in my humble opinion.
The main subject of the documentary is a slave ship named the Clotilda, which has been known as one of the last American slave ships in the late 19th century. Although slavery already became illegal in US even before the American Civil War was started, slave trade was still thriving especially in the South during that period, and many local businessmen like Timothy Meaher, who was the owner of the Clotilda, amassed their big fortune via this heinous trade business of theirs.
The last voyage of the Clotilda, which was incidentally prompted by a little casual bet between Meaher and his business associates in 1860, brought 110 African slaves sent from an African kingdom named Dahomey, which is Benin at present. Once these slaves got off from the ship in the port of Moblie, Alabama, the ship was subsequently destroyed and then sunk somewhere for covering up its criminal activities, and these slaves were quickly sold to here and there while Meaher got all the profit from that.
At least, these slaves got freed around 5 years later as the war was ended with the victory of the North, though they still could not go back to Africa. Their leader, Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, and his fellow slaves eventually decided to buy and then settle in a certain area in Mobile, and that was the beginning of Africatown, which is also known as Plateau.
Although their slave ship was something they could not possibly talk about in public due to those rich white people with power, Lewis and his fellow slaves told their painful history to their sons and daughters, and then their oral history was handed to one generation after another during next several decades. As a matter of fact, Lewis was also subsequently interviewed by a prominent African American folklorist named Zora Neale Hurston, who has been also incidentally known as the first black female American filmmaker in the history. The documentary shows us an old silent film clip shot by Hurston at that time, and Lewis comes to look and feel a bit more vivid to us as we become more curious about what kind of a person he really was.
Hurston later wrote a book titled “Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo””, but, alas, her book was not published until 2018. When the book was eventually published, Africatown came to draw more attention than before, and that consequently boosted the longtime search for the Clotilda. Despite many failed attempts, those community activists never gave up their hope, and they came to have a bit more expectation than before when several experts from the National Geographic came to their town for exactly locating where the ship was buried.
Meanwhile, director/co-writer/co-producer Margaret Brown also focuses on how the past of Africatown is still alive well while exerting its negative influence over Africatown and its people. At one point we look at a local cemetery where Lewis and many other slaves were buried, and we can only guess how much of their hurtful histories have been forgotten and overlooked for decades. In addition, the documentary makes a sharp point on how the long environmental problem of Africatown and its people have been connected with the considerable wealth of the descendants of Meaher, and, not so surprisingly, the descendants of Meaher declined to be interviewed for the documentary.
In the end, the remains of the Clotilda were discovered thanks to a little detective work by a local reporter named Ben Raines (He also wrote his own book about the ship, by the way), and the residents of Africatown were excited to see their local oral history finally confirmed and recognized, but several community activists express some doubt and reservation in front of the camera. While they surely are happy for the discovery of the remains of the Clotilda, they are also cautious about the next steps to follow, and they are sincerely concerned about whether the history of Africatown can be respectfully presented and preserved instead of ending up becoming another Southern historical tourist attraction.
Nevertheless, things look fairly optimistic thanks to the ongoing efforts of those local community leaders and activists, and the documentary gives us a nice example showing how Africatown and its long history can be presented and remembered well with considerable respect and enlightment. At the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington D.C., there is a wonderful section devoted to African American history and culture, and we can only hope that whatever will be installed in Africatown can be as exemplary as that.
On the whole, “Descendant” did a commendable job of illuminating the past, the present, and the future surrounding a hidden story of American slavery, and you may want to delve more into its main subject after watching it. To be frank with you, I already put both Hurston’s book and Raines’ book on my reading list, and that is an achievement to say the least.