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‘Descendant’ Director on Developing Trust and Confronting “Blind Spots” in Last Slave Ship Doc

The last known slave ship to touch American shores arrived in Alabama in 1860, more than 50 years after the international slave trade was outlawed in the U.S. After carrying 110 captives from Dahomey (now Benin) to Mobile, the Clotilda was burned and sunk in an attempt to destroy the evidence of the crime. After emancipation, a number of the survivors of that voyage formed a community in northern Mobile, known as Africatown, where descendants still live today.

Though she grew up in Mobile, Alabama, documentary director Margaret Brown says she was never taught this local history in school. With survivors and descendants fearful of spreading their story for decades and the remains of the Clotilda lost for even longer, some believed it was a myth. But as Brown’s latest film, Descendant — premiering on Netflix and in some theaters on Friday — chronicles, the Clotilda was very real, and the discovery of its remains three years ago both validated a community that had kept its story alive and opened old wounds.

Descendant picks up in 2018, after a local reporter claimed to potentially have found the ship’s wreckage. While those remains didn’t turn out to be those of the Clotilda, just one year later, the Alabama Historical Commission revealed that the actual ship actually had been discovered in the Mobile–Tensaw River Delta. In her film, Brown follows descendants of the Clotilda survivors — a number of whom still live in Africatown — as they mobilize around the discovery of the ship, which both energizes the community’s activism and prompts concerns about the community’s future and what tourism to the site could bring.

Brown had previously worked with some members of the Africatown community when making her 2008 documentary The Order of Myths, which focused on Mobile’s segregated Mardi Gras celebrations. Before making Descendant, though, “I still had to earn the trust of many people over a long period of years,” she says.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter before Friday’s premiere, Brown discussed how she earned that trust, why she retooled the film’s focus after particular white landowners stalled or didn’t respond to her requests to participate and the approach she took to confront her “blind spots” as a white filmmaker revisiting a chapter of Black American history.

How did you first encounter the story of the Clotilda and the descendants of the enslaved Africans on board and get interested in making a film about it?

I made a film 15 years ago called The Order of Myths which was about segregated Mardi Gras in Mobile, where I grew up. The white Mardi Gras queen that year was Helen Meaher of the Meaher family in Descendent, which is the family that brought the last slave ship to America on a bet almost 50 years after the slave trade was abolished. I didn’t know that that would be part of the story I was telling until after Mardi Gras, we were interviewing Stefannie Lucas, who was the Black Mardi Gras queen, and her grandparents. We were talking about this ball that both Helen and Stefannie had attended and her grandfather said, “Oh, well, my people came over on her people’s ship,” and we realized that the two queens were connected through the Clotilda. And I looked at the cinematographer and we didn’t say anything at the moment, we just were like, “Oh my god.” It’s one of those moments in documentary where the ground shifts under you and you know the film is going to be totally different.

And so I made that film, and that film was sort of centered on the narrative of the two queens’ connection, which was a crazy thing to realize. Helen Meaher traveled with that film, went to Sundance with that film, went to Europe with that film, was part of the whole campaign of the film getting into the world. And so when about almost five years ago now there was an announcement that the Clotilda had been found — it was actually at that time the wrong ship — at the time I decided to start filming, I thought the Meaher family would definitely talk to me. They weren’t talking to The New York Times, they weren’t talking to The Guardian, they weren’t talking to Nat Geo, but I knew Helen had been in my film, and I thought, well I have this access no one else has. And I also have access to the community because I’ve already made a film in this community. Kern Jackson, who was the advisor on that film, and the folklorist who’s in the film [Descendant] and the head of African American Studies at South Alabama, we had never stopped talking about it. So I was sort of ready to go when it happened. I didn’t think that I would make another movie. I still had to earn the trust of many people over a long period of years but I also already knew people in the community and I had this belief that I could get these white families to speak, which turned out not to be true.

What was the process like of speaking to descendants and other members of the Africatown community about appearing in this film? What was your pitch and how was it received?

It’s always about trust and time and just interest. So I had this film, Order of Myths, that a lot of them already knew about and had seen, so a lot of them knew a little bit about me. Emmett Lewis, who is in the film [Descendant], after I met him, he saw the film and then he offered to pass it out into the community to people who hadn’t seen it already, so that people who didn’t already know who I was would learn about this history. He was very proud of his history and he saw that I had already, many years ago, been someone who wanted to spread that history.

I think one thing that happens in a film that you make over four and half years is that there’s more coffees and talking and meals shared than there is actually filmmaking. Because especially as a white person — because even though I’m from Mobile, I’m not from Africatown — coming in, trust has to develop and it develops over time. There were a lot of outlets covering the story but there wasn’t anyone who just kept coming back the way that I did. And kept filming and filmed meeting after meeting after meeting. The way I was capturing history, I wasn’t just showing up for the glitzy stuff, I was there all the time. This is what they say: “Margaret just kept showing up.”

Dr. Kern Jackson, the director of African American Studies at the University of South Alabama, is a subject as well as a co-producer and co-writer on the film. Tell me a little bit about the decision to include Dr. Jackson in a role behind-the-scenes as well as in front of the camera and what that collaboration looked like.

I was already really closed to Kern. Kern worked on The Order of Myths, and there’s this coffee shop in Mobile called Satori [Coffee House]: He has this table there and he kind of holds court, and whenever I was in town, I would go sit at the table. There were a few things like that, it was just an organic thing, like he was my first phone call. When I knew I was coming back to start this story, I called Kern, like, “Hey, I think it’s on again, I think we’re going to do this.” It’s hard to talk about in a way, because I’m friends with his family, it’s not like, “Oh you’re hired for this job.” It’s a deeper connection than that.

As you mentioned, you first began making this film in 2018 after an early report surfaced that the Clotilda was found, but the official announcement of the ship’s uncovering wasn’t until at least a year later. Did your creative direction change at any point as a result of what you were learning or how the discovery process went?

Yeah. I think about filmmaking this way, a film kind of tells you what it is. I walked in thinking, well, this is probably going to be something that’s like looking at whiteness and blackness. When it became true that the white people weren’t going to talk to me, I was like, “Oh, well.” I mean, looking back, it’s like, is there any other decision at the center? The Black descendants, that’s the story. And they’re such amazing storytellers because they’ve been literally telling this story for 160 years to keep it alive, so that’s I think why we have such strong characters in the movie, because they’ve had to practice. It’s part of who they are, so they’re incredible storytellers.

When I realized the Meahers and other white families who were connected to the communities weren’t going to talk to me, I realized that I had a lot of blind spots as a white person. I mean, I was already collaborating with Kern and other people on the crew who were people of color, but there’s a friend of mine that I’d already been organically talking through the project about, it just became clear to me that I needed to bring her on as a producer as well, Essie Chambers. Because, I thought, this is clearly a Black story, I know I have blind spots, I need to surround myself. Because the film won’t be as good if it’s just for white people and the white gaze. So, yeah, we had a lot of discussions about certain things that I would have left in the movie, if she hadn’t have been like, “That doesn’t include everybody.” The movie wouldn’t have been as good without deep listening, I guess.

That also includes people onscreen. Another thing with this film is I’ve never shown people in the movie scenes before I’m finished. And with this film, especially with the Zora Neale Hurston scenes where people read from Barracoon, which is a book she wrote featuring Cudjoe Lewis, I [was] just having conversations about why I think this is important, do they think some other section is more important, why we’re filming it in this place, whether it be a plantation home that’s now a museum or a sacred spot to the community that’s surrounded on all sides by chemical plants and paper mills and storage tanks for the oil industry. It was an incredible conversation because I think I really like collaborating. I mean, I’m a very strong-willed director, I know what I want, but it’s sort of more exciting to collaborate because you learn things you just wouldn’t know. Part of the excitement and why I love documentary is you wake up in the morning and you don’t know what you’re going to get. This level of deep collaboration, it’s like coming from someone else’s brain but yours, it felt really appropriate for the construction of this film.

In terms of the white sources you were trying to get to participate at the beginning of your filmmaking process, what were the responses that you were receiving?

Silence. Silence or like “We’d love to talk to you but we can’t talk this week” or “We can’t talk to you during your shooting period,” and [that timing] just kept getting pushed and pushed and pushed. I mean, there were some white people who would talk to us, like Herndon Inge, who’s in the film and whose family had slaves, he’s arguably — besides bringing the slave ship over — similar to the Meaher family. And he was able to speak to it and explain his position and kind of unpack it and I guess sort of model what another position might be with those same parameters. Even though there’s the significant difference being his family did not bring the slave ship over and his family is still not [owning] land that pollutes Africatown. And I feel like those are two pretty big significant differences, but he’s still, like many white Americans, grappling with the same questions. Which I think is important — there are other ways to be besides silent.

At one point in the film, descendant Veda Tunstall voices concern that once Africatown is opened up to tourism, the community will lose control of their story. What’s your sense of the control the community has at this point, three years after the Clotilda was found?

I think it’s still a little up for grabs. I feel like part of the trajectory of the film is watching people come into their own power. And where the film ends is at this moment where it could go in a few different ways for Africatown. It’s always been an incredibly activist community; when I started filming there, the first thing I did was just go to all these meetings — the environmental meetings, the community meetings, the meetings for the alumni association for the school that’s there. It was astonishing. The community’s going to keep doing their activism and stuff for the community. But there’s a moment right now [where] I think the city just saw that, like, let’s look up at Montgomery to the north. And EJI [The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery], the lynching memorial, like [community activist] Joe Womack says in the movie, they’re making billions of dollars. So I think this city saw the billions of dollars, potentially, in this kind of slavery tourism. EJI got help primarily from people and organizations outside of the state of Alabama and they kind of kept the revenue for themselves and their causes. Montgomery did not help them and Montgomery lost out. I think the city of Mobile is looking at this as like, well, how can we capitalize on this? And it’s their decision whether they decide to uplift the community as their move or they decide to try to do a money grab. Certainly there’s a little bit of speaking out of one side of the mouth and doing the different thing historically in that community. Particularly with zoning. So I don’t have a lot of faith they’ll do the right thing. But maybe they will; my hope is that they will.

Have the descendants seen the film, and if so, what was their reaction?

Definitely everyone who is in the film has seen the film and we’re having a screening Saturday night in Mobile, after it premieres on Netflix on Friday, it’s going to be amazing. There’s a lot planned, and we’re having it in an 1,800-person theater, which is already sold out, and then the film’s showing theatrically there for a while and there’s just going to be a celebration of the community. Participant’s doing an impact campaign around the film that’s really robust with Questlove’s company and the Obamas’ company and Netflix. So the story is ongoing. When the film ended, the excavating of the ship didn’t stop, the environmental remediation fight is continuing, so there’s a lot still happening. So it’s a really exciting time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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