Last month, Netflix debuted the award-winning documentary Descendant exclusively on its platform. The film details the lasting effects of the last known ship to transport enslaved people to America – the Clotilda.

Descendant follows members of Africatown, an Alabama community, as they share familial and community history as descendants of the Clotilda. The ship arrived on Alabama’s coastline more than 40 years after slavery was outlawed and deemed punishable by death. To destroy evidence of the journey, the ship was burned and its existence was quickly buried as folklore. However, as the documentary’s logline explains, “after a century shrouded in secrecy and speculation, descendants of the Clotilda’s survivors are reclaiming their story.”

The ship’s existence, a centuries-old open secret, is confirmed by a team of marine archeologists. The film explores implications of the Clotilda’s discovery for the descendants. Black citizens of Africatown grapple with their heritage while claiming the power to shape their own destinies.

Descendant is directed by Margaret Brown (“The Order of Myths” and “The Great Invisible”) and produced by Night Tide production. Higher Ground Productions (a Michelle and Barack Obama-led company) acquired the rights with Netflix to the documentary, according to What’s On Netflix.

“I have been humbled and honored to spend four years with the residents of Africatown as they seek justice and reconciliation for what happened in 1860, and what is still happening today,” said Brown. “I am excited that through Netflix and Higher Ground’s global reach, audiences around the world will learn this powerful history.”

“It’s Not All About That Ship”

The film highlights several key themes of the story of the Clotilda and its legacy, whose impact can still be felt in the community today.

The hush-hush nature of the stories and lives of the 110 Africans who landed on the Alabama shore in 1860 is one of the most striking aspects of the story. Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile industrialist made a bet with his Southern associates that he could circumvent the ban on slave transportation to bring a ship full of Africans to America. Rumors of the ship being burned upon arrival to conceal the evidence of the crime made their rounds, but the tale lingered in local legend despite being erased from the historical register. As such, families passed on the stories in the privacy of their homes and communal spaces to avoid the backlash of the Deep South’s racism and attack on Black lives. 

Another concerning aspect of the documentary is the ownership of factory land that surrounds Africatown by the family responsible for the Clotilda’s existence. These factories engulf the small community on all sides and have been found to be largely responsible for a substantial increase in Cancer cases in the community. It also represents a form of environmental racism all too common in predominantly Black communities across the U.S. 

Unsurprisingly, none of Timothy Meaher’s descendants (the family of the man who orchestrated the Clotida’s voyage) agreed to be interviewed for this film.

That said, Jocelyn Davis, a resident of Africatown and Clotilda descendant shares, “I don’t want the momentum of this story to just be focused on the ship. It’s not all about that ship.”

This powerful account of the deep history within the community of Africatown makes this documentary well worth adding to your must-watch list.

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