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Higher Ground’s ‘Descendant’ Reveals Story Of America’s Last Known Slave Ship And Its Powerful Legacy — SXSW

'Descendant' director Margaret Brown (left) with Clotilda descendants Jocelyn David (center) and Veda Tunstall

Former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have established quite a track record with their Netflix-based production company, Higher Ground. Their first documentary, American Factory, won the Academy Award in 2020, and last year their documentary Crip Camp earned an Oscar nomination.

Higher Ground’s latest documentary, Descendant, is already attracting significant attention. The film directed by Margaret Brown chronicles descendants of enslaved people who were seized in West Africa and transported in chains to the United States in 1860, aboard the slave ship Clotilda. Part of the film is dedicated to revealing how the shipwreck was finally discovered in the Mobile River, more than a century and a half after it was deliberately scuttled to hide evidence of its slaving mission.

Descendant, from Participant, premiered and won an award at Sundance, and played at SXSW in the Festival Favorites section.

I always thought, ‘I don’t know how many people will want to watch a film about slavery.’ So many people feel such conflicted emotions about it, but I thought, ‘I bet I can get a lot of people to watch this if we make it more like an adventure film,’” Brown explained as she stopped by Deadline’s SXSW Studio. “I thought there’s something in this story that a lot of people will be interested in; even if they don’t think they want to hear a story about slavery, maybe the ship will be what hooks them.”

Just as importantly, if not more so, Descendant explores what has become of Africatown, the Mobile-area community settled by people transported on the Clotilda, after they were freed following the Civil War. Africatown has not escaped the impact of racism across time. It is polluted from toxins released by factories nearby, businesses dominated by whites who presumably would never dream of building a toxin-spewing plant in their own neighborhoods.

“We’re surrounded by industry and it’s something that we’ve always grown up with,” said Jocelyn Davis, a descendant of Clotilda captives and one of the subjects of the film. “I thought that all neighborhoods had a chemical plant or a lumberyard next to it — like, I didn’t know anything different. And we have this highway that just came smack dab through the community that took away homes and businesses. So with Margaret [Brown] bringing this story out, millions can see what Africatown is like today… It’s a contemporary story. We know the history, but what is Africatown like today? What are we going through today?”

Watch the conversation in the video above.

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