“If I make a film, it should be about white people,” Brown told IndieWire of the making of her film.
In her 2008 documentary The Order of Myths, director Margaret Brown examines the segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. She also deals with the last slave ship, the Clotilda, which was sunk in Mobile Bay more than 160 years ago. She never expected to return to this story – and then Descendent happened.
After The Order of Myths, Brown was drawn like a magnet to the unfolding search for the Clotilda, along with her The Order of Myths advisor, African-American Studies professor and folklorist Kern Jackson, the co-author and co-author. Writer-turned-producer of “Descendant”. “We never stopped talking,” Brown said.
In early 2018, they found the wrong ship, the Notilde, in Africatown, but the news went around the world. One morning in Los Angeles, SXSW impresario and film producer Lewis Black said to Brown, “Margaret, are you crazy? You have to go back!”
He wrote her a check at breakfast, and the next morning she was on the plane to Mobile. Four years later, the film premiered at Sundance, where it was acquired by Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions — but that happy outcome was never a sure thing.
In 2018, Brown was on track with the new documentary when she came to the dawning realization that the balanced portrait she had planned of the story of Africatown near her hometown of Mobile wasn’t going to happen.
She had assumed she would be able to interview people from all sides of history like she had on The Order of Myths. After all, she had spoken to many of the white families she wanted to re-interrogate—including, most importantly to her story, the Meahers. In 1860 her ancestor brought the Clotilda into Mobile Bay, burned her and sank her. Some of the surviving Africans were sold into slavery; others ran into nearby woods. Their descendants bought the land that became Africatown.
Years ago, Brown’s mother told her that the ancestor of Helen Meaher, the young queen of Mardi Gras that year, was Clotilde slave trader Tim Meaher. “It was a story in mobile,” Brown said in a recent interview via Zoom. “Now they’ve found a boat and in White Mobile it was like a whisper. You didn’t talk about it.”
Brown has a complex relationship with Mobile. After graduating from Brown University, the Austin-based filmmaker has focused her three feature films and numerous short films on the city where she frequently checks into her home. “Although by the time I finished high school and we were in college I wanted to go as far away as possible to the most liberal place I could find, I’m quite obsessed with where I come from and the complexities that come with it is.” She said. “The things that repelled me in my childhood, that I thought were so conformist, I’m curious to examine them – and see what I find.”
Returning to the Clotilda story for Descendants, the first task was to cast the characters to tell the story of Africatown, from Clotilda descendant Veda Tunstall to marine archaeologist and diver Kamau Sadiki to Emmett Lewis, great-grandson of Clotilda survivor Cudjoe Lewis. In the documentary, Emmett reads from the late Zora Neale Hurston’s interview with Cudjoe in the posthumously published Barracoon, which tells the story of his great-grandfather.
But archival research also turned up Cudjoe recordings recorded by Hurston himself. “Every scrap of Zora Neale Hurston I could find,” Brown said. [“I thought”], ‘She’s such a good shot.’ It’s crazy how good she is. I knew very early on that I wanted Barracoon to be a common thread throughout the film that people read from. I just became obsessed with her, the complexity of her voice that I needed to bring to the fore when telling the story.”
When Brown couldn’t get anyone to attend, she just kept going back. But eventually she had to face the facts. Although Helen Meaher texted her, none of the Meahers would go on record.
“I thought the Meaher family would talk to me when I started,” Brown said. “That’s one of the reasons I decided to do the film, because I thought, ‘if I want to do a film, it should be about white people.’ If I had known what was going to happen I wouldn’t have started. I figured because Helen Meaher was in my other film and had traveled to Sundance and other countries with that film that she would be in that film, although this family would not speak openly to anyone about the Clotilda once there were murmurs, that they found it. radio silence. I was wrong when it came to that. No, I was still not admitted.”
That meant Brown, a white filmmaker, was now telling a story about Black Africatown. She relied on producers SC Chambers and Kern Jackson, who are black, and Kyle Martin, who is white, to narrate the story. She also shared some footage with her subjects, which was a first for her. “I feel like I have blind spots as a white person telling a black story,” she said.
Brown felt a great responsibility to the community “to be the vessel for her story, especially as a white person,” she said. “I made this film in a very collaborative way, very different from my other projects. I would like to believe that anyone can tell any story they want, but I also think they should think about why they are drawn to the story, why they should tell that story. You should really think about it.”
“Descendant” has received plaudits in everything from Sundance’s US Documentary Special Award for Creative Vision to Cinema Eye Honors nominations (Best Director, Outstanding Original Score) and Critics Choice Documentary Awards (Best Documentary, Director, and Best historical documentary) and inclusion in the influential DOC NYC Short List. However, the film was noticeably overlooked by the IDA Awards. Will the Academy Documentary Department suggest that Brown shouldn’t have told this black story? We’ll see when the Oscar shortlist is announced on December 21st.
On a positive note, the Obamas got on board at Sundance with their Netflix label Higher Ground, as well as with eventual Oscar-winning American Factory. During post-production, Amir “Questlove” Thompson – a descendant of Clotilda – joined the project as executive producer about a year after his Oscar-winning directorial debut, Summer of Soul, made its own Sundance premiere.
Another member of The Roots, Ray Angry, joined forces with Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell to compose much of the score, while Questlove’s company Two and Five was involved in Participant’s Impact campaign. “They were definitely very vocal about decisions,” Brown said. “Questlove has many political opinions.” When the film was being completed, Questlove met his family via Zoom. “Questlove’s meeting with his relatives was incredible to watch,” Brown said.
The Clotilda was a key character in the film, and Brown knew it would be a seductive way to draw the audience into her narrative. “When I started meeting people, I felt like everyone knew the ship was there,” she said, noting how many people grew up hearing stories about their ancestors. “So obviously it was true — if they find it, that’s going to be that big plot point.”
One of the most poignant moments in the film sees a room full of people, including many Clotilda descendants, standing in front of a large model of the slave ship, taking in the horrifying geography of what their ancestors endured. Brown’s cameras captured the reactions on their faces. “The whole movie could be that scene,” she realized at the time. “I tried to keep my composure and not show any facial expressions during the shoot; that was extremely difficult for the crew.”
In the editing room, Brown had to make decisions about how to act on what he saw. “There were some things that we didn’t even build in,” she said. “Silent things that white people in the room said, ‘How really? Did you just say that?’ How much of that can you put into the film? So there were many more moments like that.”
Finally, Meg and Helen Meaher responded to “Descendant” in a statement to the Descendants of Clotilda, which was emailed to NBC News on Oct. 15 surrounding the film’s release. The actions of their ancestor, Timothy Meaher, they said, “were evil and unforgivable, and had consequences that affected generations of people. Our family has been silent on this matter for too long. However, we hope that we – the current generation of the Meaher family – can start a new chapter.”
In a response statement from the Clotilda descendants, they expressed hope that the Meahers would share any “historical documents, artifacts, or oral tradition that might bring clarity to the ongoing narrative.”
Brown said she learned a lot about making documentaries about people who don’t share her background. “It’s about being really truthful with, ‘What are your prejudices? What are your blind spots?’” she said. “Are you open to listening to someone who may not see things the way you do?”
Descendant is now streaming on Netflix, along with Brown’s earlier The Order of Myths.