Sometime in the summer of 1859 (or maybe it was 1960), a slave ship arrived in Mobile, Alabama, carrying 110 men, women, and children. It was called the Clotilda, and it was the last slave ship to arrive in America. By then, the importation of slaves had been illegal for half a century, but after betting a friend that he could do it without getting caught, wealthy landowner Timothy Meaher arranged the trip, offloaded and sold the slaves, and then burned the Cotilda in Mobile Bay to hide the evidence.
That’s the story, as it was told by Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the Clotilda, to his children and grandchildren. He died in 1935, and the legend has been passed around Africatown, the Alabama town where descendants of the Clotilda slave ship are concentrated. It’s their origin story, but without proof of the ship’s voyage, the incident exists in no history textbooks, and the residents of Africatown were left without a clear, verified knowledge of where they came from.
“Descendant,” a riveting new Netflix documentary, chronicles the attempts by those citizens to find the wreckage of the Clotilda in Mobile Bay, and ultimately to reclaim their story from the tide of history. The premise offers notes of mystery and adventure, but director Margaret Brown is after something far more contemplative. “Descendant” isn’t about what happens. It’s about whom it happens to. The film maintains a clear focus on the inner lives of the residents of Africatown, who, even after the Clotilda is recovered, remain caught in an elusive quest for justice and closure.
It’s a piercing inquiry into both the history and legacy of American slavery. As the film’s descendants dive into their past, Brown explores on a parallel track how environmental racism, a consequence of slavery, impacts the Clotilda’s descendants. The town of Mobile sports luminous waterways and a bounty of wildlife, but nearby Africatown is beset on all sides by factories spewing pollution. Cancer levels are elevated in Africatown, and poverty is rampant. With help from historians and environmentalists, the filmmaker provides a concrete case of systemic racism rooted in America’s original sin.
“Descendant” show us how these things happen: with a parade of grinning, white faces who control the narrative. As the town is forced to turn to outsiders for assistance, they align with political leaders and white-collar executives who are excited about the rescue of the ship but remain blinded to the pain of its inhabitants. A representative of National Geographic brings a carefully-constructed miniature replica of the Clotilda, complete with tiny Black bodies, to a room of Africatown residents. He unveils it with a flourish and calls it “wonderful.” The audience sits still, paralyzed by the long-buried realities it portrays.
These smiling white faces keep showing up. The mayor takes credit in on-air interviews, while a representative from the governor’s office makes a big, useless speech. Then there’s the distant cousin of the ship’s captain who, after showing an earnest interest in helping with the project, stop to point out tha the record shows his ancestor was kinder to his slaves than other masters. The film doesn’t editorialize against him, but Brown’s commitment to showing instead of telling, and chronicling the difference between white and Black reactions to the realities of slavery, raises the right questions.
Even as small victories are achieved, however, larger and more complicated battles remain. The subjects of “Descendant” may find their ship, but they remain frustrated by deeper ambitions: a life not defined by pain or trauma. All that they really get is confirmation that their trauma is real—no small thing—and a chance to tell their story again, this time with evidence.
“Descendant” is streaming on Netflix now.