On its surface, Margaret Brown’s “Descendant” is about the rediscovery of the wreck of the last slave ship to (illegally) arrive in the United States in July of 1860, less than a year before the start of the American Civil War. As documentary subject and writer of the film Kern Jackson puts it, “The boat’s waiting to get raised up. It’s been there the entire time.” But the mystery of where the ship was sunk and the process of how it was found again aren’t nearly as interesting to Brown’s film as the tension of who will get to benefit from the slave ship Clotilda’s recovery.
“Descendant” is a single tense title, but it follows the community of Africatown, which is part of the greater Mobile, Alabama area (although it certainly isn’t zoned like a suburb), and the many descendants of the Clotilda who still live there. Through rich and meditative cinematography and sound design as alive as the cicadas in the bushes, Brown and her team create a sense of the community the Clotilda descendants have built in Africatown. But the film also works to meld the past and present through evocative readings of remembrances from Cudjoe Lewis, one of enslaved people taken to Mobile on the Clotilda’s voyage. “Descendant” tells us what happened, but is much more about the experience of living with history and the radical act that storytelling can sometimes be, when it’s a story people in power would rather stay below the surface.
On this episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Brown discusses the necessity of collaborating with her subjects to tell this story, identifying the central question of “Descendant,” the joy of including the work and words of Zora Neale Hurston, and much more.
Listen to the entire discussion below or read on for excerpts from the conversation. To hear this and more conversations with your favorite TV and film creators, subscribe to the Toolkit podcast via Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, or Overcast.
Brown on Shooting in Africatown
Africatown is a very lush place that feels cared for and loved. I mean, there’s definitely blight there, but there’s also a lot of beauty. There’s a community garden that’s the biggest community garden in the state of Alabama. There’s trees that bear fruit. There’s flowers. And then you zoom up, zoom out, and there’s a chemical industrial complex that surrounds it. And when you first go there, it’s very emotional — or it was for our team. We felt very upset. It smells bad. It’s loud. It is clearly polluting, and it just seems so unjust to stand there. It makes you want to cry. We did cry. I remember driving down [in the] early days when we were just starting, in development, down the road to Lewis Quarters, which is surrounded by camphor and which is historically Gulf Lumber, which the mayor of Mobile, who’s featured in the film, his family historically [has owned] that [company]. And just feeling like, how is this possible? It’s so disgusting. Like, why would anyone do that and think that’s okay? And for four-and-a-half years, I was, like, ‘How do you capture this? How do you show what this is?’ But then there’s also part of me that’s hopeful when people in power see this, they’ll see it. Maybe they don’t see it until you show them.
So the whole time I was making the film, I was always very cognizant of how do I translate the experience of how I feel — the smells, the sounds, the sort of lushness of this place alongside this gray blight — into a movie? Because I come from a poetry background, but film is this visceral thing you can almost enter into, and I just felt like the world of Africatown was that visceral and I wanted to offer that up to the audience to know what the community was a part of, or what their life was like.
Brown on the Influence of Zora Neale Hurston and Including Excerpts from “Barracoon”
It’s this double whammy of both her gifts as a writer and [Clotilda survivor] Cudjoe Lewis’ words, and his remembrances and his deep sadness of leaving his home and coming here, told in his own voice. It’s a very impactful story. But then I started reading her letters as well, and just got a sense of her as a woman and a writer and I felt very deeply connected to her. There was just something about, a hundred years ago, this woman wandering through the south. I could see it. I really deeply felt her presence and I became obsessed with her. I just wanted to honor her in the film. And I mean, she was sort of forgotten and then rediscovered the same way Africatown was. And I feel like there’s this looping that happens, you know, with history and things. When [folklorist Kern Jackson] says in the movie, “The boat’s just waiting to get raised up. It was there all the time,” that stuff is the stuff that gives you chills in a good way, you know?
And her letters reflected that necessity of being a chameleon — I feel like people who record history and have to interact with a lot of different kinds of people have to be that way. So I was reading her from almost a hundred years ago and deeply identifying with that part of her. And also just her voice was so clear to me, it felt like she so came alive and I just got really obsessed with her. Clearly, she’s a brilliant writer and an anthropologist and, we discovered, a filmmaker. I mean, her shooting is stunning. Her footage is riveting and her footage of Cudjoe Lewis is riveting.
It was a way to really deeply connect the past to the present by having the descendants read it. It’s not that many generations back. It’s astonishingly a short glimpse of time. Gary Lumbers, he lived in Cudjoe’s house, you know? There’s a famous picture of Cudjoe and two of his grandchildren and one of those two women was [Gary’s] mother. That is nuts when you think about it. This is another iteration of the story being passed along, the looping that happens.
Participant/Courtesy of Netflix
Brown on the Collaborative Nature of the Film
It’s one thing to film verité — arguably that’s manipulative, but you’re also capturing reality, you know? They knew I was there. They knew the camera was there. I felt more comfortable with that. But with Zora and “Barracoon,” this is like [the descendants’] story, literally, and they needed to approve of it as part of the team of the filmmakers, of the filmmaking. So that was really important to me and I’d never done that before. I’d never showed footage before it was complete. Because there’s a chance they’re gonna be like, ‘This sucks. This is not how I want my story to be told. And do it over.’ And there’s huge crews and Steadicams involved, and those aren’t things that normally a documentary has budget for. So I was nervous, but I also knew because we had a billion conversations about it beforehand — like why I wanted to do something, what do they think of reading that part? Why I was doing it? Why I was placing a person in a place. Those conversations happened beforehand. I just didn’t show up that morning and was like, ‘Oh, we’re doing this.’ It was an ongoing dialogue and conversation.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.