How ‘Descendant’ Searched for a Slave Ship and a Community’s History

A version of this story about “Descendant” first appeared in the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Director Margaret Brown, a native of Mobile, Alabama, was making a film about the segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in that city when she first heard about the “Clotilda,” the last slave ship to come to America. More than a decade later, she recruited producer Essie Chambers and made “Descendant,” whose executive producers include Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The Netflix documentary deals with the search for the ruins of the ship — but more than that, it’s about a community that includes descendants of the people who financed the ship and of the enslaved Africans who were transported on it. They founded a Mobile community called Africatown, which for the last 100 years has been bordered by polluting factories and industrial mills.

The “Clotilda,” incidentally, set sail in 1860 with its 110 enslaved Africans from the West African kingdom of Dahomey, the same kingdom depicted in the movie “The Woman King.”

Margaret, you touched on this story 14 years ago with “The Order of Myths”, but the “Clotilda” had not been found at that point. How much of the story did you know back then?
MARGARET BROWN I wasn’t taught it in school. I’m pretty sure that when I told my mom I was making “The Order of Myths”, she said, “Well, you know, the Meaher family, they brought that last slave ship over.” But the way she talked about it was almost like a ghost story or myth. It had never been found and it wasn’t something you talked about out loud. But when I found out the Black (Mardi Gras) queen was descended from the ship, that film became very much centered around those connections.

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Essie, what brought you to this project?
ESSIE CHAMBERS Margaret and I met at a writer’s residency. We talked about the story as friends, and then as it evolved and it became clear that the Meahers weren’t talking, the shape of it changed. And she asked me to come on as a producer to make sure that Black people were at the center of telling the story creatively. And because we were friends, that made all the difference, because you need honesty and trust in these kind of partnerships.

I think I joined maybe nine months after they had started shooting. It was right around the time of the 1619 Project and Clint Smith and other people that were talking about American history with Black American history at the center. That conversation was just starting, and it was incredibly exciting for me to join that. In addition to the fact that this is Margaret’s home turf. She had relationships there, and with a story like this access is everything. So all of those pieces that brought us together.

Had you been taught about this story growing up?
CHAMBERS I’m a Black woman. I grew up in a mostly white town. And when it came to the chapter on slavery, the history teacher would ask me if I wanted to get up and speak. About what? (Laughs) It was horrific. I mean, I was lucky that I had parents who were very educated and who taught me about Black history because I certainly didn’t get any in school. And I think that where I did get Black history in school, there was a lot of shame around the kind of history that I was taught. And I think a lot of Black Americans would say the same thing.

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Margaret, you’ve said in the past you weren’t sure if this was your story to tell. What got you to the point where you did think that you could and should tell the story?
BROWN Well, a few different things. It is my home turf and I felt like I had the backing to do it. And I had the trust of the community. Not the trust of the whole community. I don’t know everyone in Africatown, but I did have the trust of the people who are the stars of the film. And honestly, I still grapple with it. I still am like, “How does a white person tell this story?”

CHAMBERS The way that this film evolved was so organic. That’s the nature of a verite filmmaking process. But I feel like what Margaret did so masterfully was evolve along with the journey of the film.

BROWN You never know what the story is. I thought the story would be more like “The Order of Myths” and I could be the one who would get the Meahers to talk. Helen Meaher certainly collaborated with me before and talked very openly about what her family did. So I thought I could get her to be in the movie. And then there was a moment when I realized, “Oh, my gosh, they’re probably not gonna talk to me.” And there were a lot of other white families that weren’t talking to me, or were talking to me in coded ways that were not really usable.

And so I was like, “Oh, I am a white woman making a movie about the Black experience. What do I do?” (Laughs) “Do I quit?” But I was already obsessed with the story and compelled by the people in the movie. I wanted to be part of this conversation.

The film has the search for the “Clotilda,” which brings suspense but is not the heart of the story. And then it has the stories of the descendants and their community, and tapes of the oral history passed down within the community, and the element of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Barracoon”, which was based on conversations with the last survivor but not published for decades. How do you find the balance?
BROWN Well, I think life is very dense. My favorite stories are multilayered stories. I think that’s where great editors and producers help you find the way, and I always knew that I couldn’t abandon my threads. I mean, the art of the film is balancing that in a poetic way that weaves together and seems inevitable, you know? So yeah, that was the challenge.

We started it as a series because we thought, “This is too complicated for one movie.” But I think there’s this tension between art documentaries and activist documentaries, and I wanted to do something that was both. I wanted people to join the fight and be part of what’s going on in Africatown, and I thought, “Well, if I make it a feature, I’ll get it done quicker.” I felt there was an urgency, and that made the decision for me.

Read more from the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue here.

Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap
Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap