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Sundance First Look: Powerful ‘Descendant’ Pulses With Descendants Of Last Slave Ship To Reach U.S. Shores

A man on the banks of the Mobile River from 'Descendant'

EXCLUSIVE: Most Americans enjoy the luxury of knowing where their ancestors came from – perhaps a town in Ireland, a village in Germany, a community in India, or bustling Beirut. That is not the case for most African Americans: among the extraordinary cruelties of slavery is that it deprived those in bondage of their freedom and also cut them off from their roots. Most African Americans today are denied the possibility of knowing with any specificity where their ancestors came from.

One exception to that are the descendants of the Clotilda, the last slave ship known to have reached U.S. shores. The vessel unloaded its human cargo in Mobile, Alabama in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War.

Margaret Brown’s film Descendant, premiering at Sundance in U.S. Documentary Competition, pulses with the accounts of people who trace their origins to those carried in chains on the Clotilda more than 150 years ago.

“We’ve never had the opportunity to embrace our history. It’s never been valued,” observes Sheila Flanagan, former director of programs at the History Museum of Mobile, in an exclusive clip from the documentary. “This is the first instance where this one group of people can actually say where they came from. I have no idea where my African ancestors came from. But this is one group that can do that.”

After the Civil War and passage of the 13th Amendment brought an end to slavery, many of those who had been transported on the Clotilda formed a community near Mobile known as Africatown. Their ability to prosper was severely curtailed by predatory racism, and the white powerbrokers of Mobile – including the descendants of Timothy Meaher, the man who had financed the Clotilda human trafficking expedition – have continued to exert disproportionate control over Black lives.

“The Meaher family owns much of the heavily industrialized area that surrounds Africatown,” the filmmakers point out. “Elevated cases of cancer and illness are prevalent there” – likely the result of exposure to industrial toxins – “but the Africatown community persists.”

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who premiered his acclaimed documentary Summer of Soul at Sundance last year, is an executive producer of Descendant. One of his ancestors, Charlie Lewis, was among those aboard the Clotilda.

“I hope Descendant is one of those films you have to have a conversation about once you see it,” Thompson said in a statement. “I want people to see it to give them an entryway into thinking about our country’s history. It is one tangible proof of our story that I hope creates space for different levels of understanding about race and culture, and allows us to talk about difficult truths like this to further the conversation on the effects of slavery on its people.”

Descendant documents the long quest to find what remains of the Clotilda itself. The ship was deliberately scuttled after arriving in Mobile, to hide evidence (transporting slaves from Africa had been declared illegal in the U.S. in 1818). In 2019, after more than a century and a half of fruitless search, the Clotilda at last was discovered in muddy waters just off the banks of the Mobile River.

Descendant is an acquisition title at Sundance. Participant presents the film, a Night Tide production in association with Two One Five Entertainment, developed with support from Concordia Studio. Margaret Brown, a Mobile native, directs. Producers are Brown, Kyle Martin and Essie Chambers.

Watch the exclusive clip above.

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