“Descendant,” the incisive, caring documentary from director Margaret Brown that’s now on Netflix, begins with the search for a missing ship, but ends as so much more. That ship is the Clotilda, a vessel that brought the last enslaved Africans to America.
Its story, outlined in great detail by writer/filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston, first in her documentary short, “Fieldwork,” and then in her book Baccaroon, as built around an interview with Cudjoe Lewis, a survivor of the Clotilda, is a familiar one. It concerns white folks dehumanizing Black people as opportunities to prove their superiority. In 1859, Timothy Meaher, a Mobile, Alabama businessman made a bet with a wealthy man that he could smuggle enslaved people from the Dahomey Kingdom back to America. Ignoring Congress’ ban of US involvement in the slave trade, Meaher partnered with Captain William Foster to sail his ship, the Clotilda, to Africa. Their plan, unfortunately, proved successful. They returned to Alabama with 110 Africans. And covered their tracks by sinking the ship. After the Civil War, these Africans founded their own community outside of Mobile known as Africatown. Their descendents still live there today.
In her documentary, Brown meets with the present-day kin of those Africans who are not only in search of the ship. They’re still dealing with the structural inequality–from environmental racism leading to widespread illness to the stripping of Black-owned land by white interests–left by slavery. Brown’s film is a time capsule, an imperative warning, a redressing of past wrongs, and a meditation on the responsibility we have to our ancestors to speak for them when they cannot speak for themselves.
Margaret Brown and Joycelyn Davis—one of the documentary’s subjects and the organizer of “Spirit of Our Ancestors” festival—spoke with RogerEbert.com about finding the Clotilda, the pressure to get this story right, and how they met with a descendant of Captain Foster.
What drew you to the story of the Clotilda, Margaret?
MARGARET BROWN: I made a film 15 years ago called “The Order of Myths” that was centered around the Clotilda. It was about a segregated Mardi Gras in Mobile, where I'm from. The Mardi Gras Queen of the White Mardi Gras the year that I filmed it was Helen Meaher, who is of the Meaher family. After Mardi Gras was over, we found out Stephanie Lucas, who was the Black Mardi Gras Queen, that her grandfather was descended from the Clotilda. In interviewing her grandparents and her around their kitchen table, the connection around the Clotilda reoriented that entire film.
So I was sort of led to the story 15 years ago. I worked with Dr. Kern Jackson, who's in the film and is a co-writer on the film, and we just sort of never stopped talking about the story. And then about four years ago, when they found what they thought was the Clotilda, which is colloquially referred to as the No-Tilda now, that was when we started filming again. And I didn't know Joycelyn from the first movie, but I did know her Aunt Lorna from when I made “The Order of Myths,” and I knew other people in Africatown. But that was the starting point.
When did you know that you were going to shift the search for the ship in the background?
MB: What Joycelyn said in the film is definitely how I felt when I started filming; I never really thought it would matter if they found the ship because I knew that the community was the most interesting and exciting thing about the story. I did think that, of course, a search for a slave ship that may or may not be found over the course of making this film is certainly something that's really interesting to track. And like Joycelyn, and Joycelyn you should speak to what you felt, but it was very exciting when it was found. I did feel a seismic shift. But before that, I always thought that no matter if they found it or not, it would be a great film. We began filming two years before the ship was found.
And Joycelyn, could you explain how you felt when the ship was found?
JOYCELYN DAVIS: Well, they told us that it would be four weeks. And you know, I was thinking about the last attempt that wasn't successful with the no-Tilda. When the four weeks came about, I wasn't anticipating anything because I just felt like the focus was too much on the ship and not the people. But after four weeks, Anderson Flynn, who is in the film, texted me and he said: Young lady, I need you to come to the Hope Center. Normally when elders ask you to come somewhere, you don't ask why or who's there. I just said: Okay. I'll be there in 10 minutes. So when I arrived, there were several cars and the news media there.
We went into a smaller room at the Hope Center and we're all sitting around this table, and the representative from the Alabama Historical Commission made that announcement there. So everything changed for me because I was called to be in that room with some very special people. Just being alive and being able to say I was there when they announced it was amazing. In the beginning, I really didn’t care about the search. But we looked at the nails, and we looked at the pieces of wood [from the ship], and I just instantly thought about my ancestors that day.
You bring up your ancestors. So many people in the documentary speak about ancestors and them acting through their descendants. Joycelyn, what was the responsibility that you felt to get this story out there?
JD: Well, it’s about continuing to tell the story. I didn't tell it as a teenager. It only really happened in adulthood. I mean, I always knew about it. But, you know, we are charged with carrying those who came before us. I also hold an event in Africatown, it's called the Spirit of our Ancestors Festival, where we celebrate our ancestors. And in 2023 we'll celebrate our fifth year. These are things that you see in the film with what Lorna would do in Lewis Quarters, where my great-grandmother lived, her grandmother. As people get older and they get tired—not Lorna; she's still kicking—it's my responsibility to continue to tell the story.
And Margaret, as an outsider, what kind of pressure did you feel?
MB: I definitely felt a lot of pressure to get it right. I mean, Joycelyn, I don't know if you know this, but this is the first time I've ever done this: I showed Joycelyn a scene from the film before we were done. I never do that. I would just trust myself. But it was really amazing to get feedback during it because it's her story. It's not my story. So I just wanted to make sure that she was down with what I was doing. I felt so honored that I was trusted to be part of this. I felt like I needed to get it right.
The documentary goes through the environmental racism experienced by the residents of Africatown. It hits so much harder with the relevance of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and recently in Jackson, Mississippi. Joycelyn, could you talk about how the community of Africatown began connecting the dots between the area’s factories and mills and their relationship with certain illnesses in the community?
JD: It's weird because the connections started when Pastor Williams did the survey. And it's funny because when I was sitting in those meetings, listening to all of these different stories, my heart would go out to these different people. Within months I was diagnosed.
MB: I didn’t know that was the timeline, Joycelyn. Oh my god.
JD: Yes. Yes. I was like, whoa. I was sitting in this meeting and there was another lady from my church, and a lot of different people from different churches in the Africatown community at Yorktown. And I never shared this with you, Margaret, but there was an attorney that said: "You mean to tell me you guys have waited 20 years to decide to do this survey?" He said: "Well, maybe it's your lifestyle?" I was just like really ticked off at him. When I was diagnosed, all of a sudden I started wearing scarves to church. And then there were several people that came up to me and said, "Well, I had it. My brother had it. You need to talk to Miss Ruth Ballard if you wanna have a partner." Because she went through it. And then I saw that her brother, Brother Taylor, went through it. Several of us in the Africatown community filled out those surveys. Now, I couldn't pinpoint my illness to that because after the study the researchers said they couldn't find anything in the soil. But we know for sure that there is some kind of connection.
MB: Also there needs to be more testing done. They haven't tested everywhere.
To go back to editing the film, Margaret, was there any structural component of the film that especially worried you?
MB: I think the part that I felt I most wanted to make sure they were into was the stuff with Zora Neale Hurston. Because when you're shooting vérité scenes, it is what it is. And I don't do gotcha filmmaking. You're gonna cut a scene to reflect the reality that was there. But with the Zora Neale Hurston stuff, having them read passages from Barracoon, those are Cudjoe's words. It's also a conversation in conversation with Zora Neale Hurston. And I was also thinking about where we would film this scene?
I just wanted to make sure that Joycelyn understood why I was doing what I was doing. If Joycelyn had ever said this is a stupid idea, I would've definitely listened. It's also not normal in documentaries, at least that I have made, where I've created a scenario that I think reflects an underlying truth. But this was different. This was placing Joycelyn in a scene. And so I wanted everyone to get the full picture of why I was doing that scene. And I mean, Joycelyn, I don’t know if you remember as well as I do how overly concerned I was that you would understand what my motivation was. How do you feel about it?
JD: Well, we filmed under the bridge, which is a sacred spot, you know? All of us in the Africatown community are familiar with that place. And it's a safe place. It's a place where you can meditate. So I really didn't have a problem with that space. It was perfect.
A component of the film that I found incredible was the VHS tapes of interviews with some previous, now deceased descendants that were held by Dr Jackson. Margaret, how did you stumble onto what are essentially time capsules?
MB: Oh man. Dr. Kern Jackson. I've known him for a really long time. I knew about the tapes. But he kind of downplayed them. And then when we went to his office on that day to film, he wanted to do the interview in his chair’s office so it looked all perfect. But I always go and meet Kern in his office, which looks like a folklorist office–which is messy. Kern is like an absent-minded genius, you know? So I was like, "Can we please just shoot in your office?" This is ridiculous. This other reality is not your life. So we went to his office and he just started pulling out the tapes and we were all like, "What the…? You've been holding out on us."
I'd seen some of them at the library because some of them are digitized there, but he had more in his office than I'd ever seen. And I was just like, "Don't rewind that. Is this backed up anywhere? And he was like: I don't know. I just wanna show it to you." I was overwhelmed by the richness of the material. We were so shocked at how insane this footage was. I think it is now all backed up. I don't know Joycelyn if you know if it was backed up at the time. Do you know?
JD: I dunno. But I was elated to see that footage because my grandmother is in that and my aunt is in that too. And my cousin, she'll be 25 next month, she's in there. And I've always wanted to see actual footage of the festivals in Lewis Quarters. And just to see my grandmother, she went to be with the Lord in 2010. So just seeing her and my great-grandmother's house, with all of the quilts and everything hanging outside was amazing. That was filmed in 1999. My great-grandmother passed in 1997.
That’s unbelievable. And speaking of figures from the past, at one point, Michael Foster, the descendent of Captain Foster, appears at Joycelyn’s festival. Margaret, when did you know that Michael was going to show up?
MB: We knew he was in town because he was filming with “60 Minutes” and Joycelyn can speak to that more than I can because “60 Minutes” did not want me anywhere near that crew. We didn't know if he was gonna come to Joycelyn's festival. And then he showed up and I think my producer, Essie [Chambers] was like, "Is that Mike Foster?" Either Kyle [Martin], my other producer, or Essie went over to figure out if that was him. I think he was trying to keep a low profile, but then we started filming him. I'd never met him before that moment.
And Joycelyn did you know he was going to show up?
JD: We knew about it maybe a week or two prior, and I wanted the descendants of Gumpa Lee, Peter Lee is his enslaved name, to meet Foster because Gumpa was given to Captain Foster as a gift. So I just really wanted the descendants of Peter Lee to meet him. Not saying I didn't wanna meet him firsthand, but I wanted that family to meet him. It turned out that all of the other descendants also met Mike Foster. But he did not know his lineage until he went on Ancestry.com.
I had no problem meeting him. He was afraid. We met him downtown at this eatery/bar called Kazoola. It's named after Cudjoe Lewis’ African name. It's Kossola Kazoola. And, you know, I wasn't angry. I wanted to meet him just to see the descendant of the person who actually went over to the kingdom of the Dahomey, which is present-day Benin. It's not the last piece of the puzzle, but he is part of that puzzle.
What do you hope people take from the film?
JD: I hope it'll encourage young people to sit at the elder's feet and record and take notes. With technology the way it is now, they have everything at their fingertips. If people want to know more about the Africatown or the Clotilda story on the Clotilda Descendants Association website, there's a link where you can click on, where you can find all the books that are written about the Africatown Clotilda story by Dr. Natalie Robertson, Sylviane Diouf, and Ben Raines. In February, Nick Tabor’s book will come out. Also “Historic Sketches of the South.” People really need to know about the females because we really focus too much on the males. We need to know more about the females because Matilda McCrear was the last known survivor of the Clotilda. Dr. Hannah Dukin will have that information out soon. Her book will come in February, as well. So I just encourage people to read and find out more about their family history.
MB: There are a lot of Africatowns all over the country. I think Joycelyn is such a leader and there are so many leaders in the community. Their story is really inspiring, and I hope the film causes people to get involved and lift up the work they're already doing in the community with Land Trusts and the environmental work that's happening there. The school that's there has a really incredible alumni association. The Clotilda Defense Association is obviously doing really important work. It's such a quintessentially American story and I think it applies to the rest of the country. So I hope people watch it with that in mind.
Now playing in theaters and available on Netflix.