Why Descendant isn’t the director Margaret Brown had in mind.
“If I’m going to make a movie, it should be about whiteness,” Brown told IndieWire of his film’s genesis.
In her 2008 documentary “The Order of Myths,” director Margaret Brown explores the separate Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. In the process, she also tends to the last slave ship, the Clotilda, which was sunk in Mobile Bay over 160 years ago. She never expected to revisit that story — then ‘Descendent’ happened.
After “The Order of Myths,” Brown was drawn like a magnet to the Clotilda’s ongoing research, with her “The Order of Myths” consultant, professor of African-American studies and folklorist Kern Jackson, who became the co-writer and co-producer of “Descendant”. “We never stopped talking,” Brown said.
In early 2018, in Africatown, they found the wrong ship, the Notilde, but the news went global. One morning in Los Angeles, SXSW film impresario and producer Lewis Black said to Brown, “Margaret, are you crazy? You have to go back!”
He wrote her a breakfast check and she was on a plane to Mobile the next morning. Four years later, the film premiered at Sundance, where it was acquired by Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions – but that happy outcome was never a surefire thing.
In 2018, Brown was on the right track with the new documentary when she realized the balanced portrayal she had planned for the history of Africatown, near her hometown of Mobile, was not going to happen.
She had assumed she would be able to interview people from all sides of history, like she did with “The Order of Myths.” After all, she had spoken to many white families she wanted to interview again – including, most important to her story, the Meahers. In 1860, their ancestor brought the Clotilda to Mobile Bay, burned her and sank her. Some of the surviving Africans were sold as slaves; others ran into nearby forests. Their descendants purchased the land which became Africatown.
Years ago, Brown’s mother told him that the ancestor of Helen Meaher, the young Mardi Gras queen that year, was slave trader Clotilde Tim Meaher. “It was a tradition in Mobile,” Brown said in a recent Zoom interview. “Now they found a boat, and in White Mobile it was like a whisper campaign. You didn’t talk about it.
Brown has a complex relationship with Mobile. After graduating from Brown University, the Austin-based filmmaker focused her three feature films and numerous shorts on the city, where she frequently records herself at home. “Even though when I was finishing high school and we were in college, I wanted to go as far as possible in the most liberal place I could find, I’m pretty obsessed with where I come from and complexity. of it,” she said. “The things that repelled me growing up, that I thought were so conformist, I’m curious to examine – and see what I find.”
When she returned to Clotilda’s story for “Descendants,” the first thing to do was line up the cast of characters to tell the story of Africatown, Clotilda’s descendant Veda Tunstall, and marine archaeologist and diver Kamau Sadiki to Emmett Lewis, the great-grandson of Clotilda survivor Cudjoe Lewis. In the documentary, Emmett reads 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 yielded footage of Cudjoe shot by Hurston herself. “Every bit of film I found of Zora Neale Hurston,” Brown said. [“I thought”], ‘She’s such a good shooter.’ It’s crazy how good she is. I knew early on that I wanted ‘Barracoon’ to be a common thread throughout the film, with people reading. I just became obsessed with her, the complexity of her voice, what I needed to be front and center in telling the story.
If Brown couldn’t get someone on board, she kept backtracking. But in the end, she had to face the facts. Even though Helen Meaher texted him, none of the Meahers would be recorded.
“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 movie, because I thought, ‘If I’m going to do a movie, it should be about whiteness.’ If I had known what was going to happen I wouldn’t have started I thought because Helen Meaher was in my other movie and traveled to Sundance and other countries with that movie, that she would be in this film, even though this family would not openly tell anyone else about the Clotilda, once there were rumors that they found it. Radio silence. I was wrong when it came to that. No, I still haven’t been allowed in.
This meant that Brown, a white filmmaker, was now telling a story about Black Africatown. She relied on producers, Essie Chambers and Kern Jackson, who are black, and Kyle Martin, who is white, to help tell the story. She also shared images 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 a vehicle for their story, especially as a white person,” she said. “I made this film in a very collaborative way, very different from my other projects. I’d like to believe that anyone can tell any story, but I also think they should think about why they’re drawn to the story, why they should tell that story, they should really think about it.
“Descendant” has garnered acclaim in some quarters: from Sundance’s Special Jury Award for American Documentary for Creative Vision, to Cinema Eye Honors (Best Director, Outstanding Original Score) and Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards (Best Documentary Feature) nominations. , director, and best historical documentary), as well as inclusion on the influential DOC NYC Short List. However, the film was notably overlooked by the IDA Awards. Will the Academy’s documentary branch suggest that Brown shouldn’t have told this dark story? We’ll see when the Oscar slate is announced on December 21.
A positive sign is that at Sundance, the Obamas came with their Netflix Higher Ground label, as they did with the eventual Oscar-winning “American Factory.” Additionally, during post-production, Amir “Questlove” Thompson – a descendant of Clotilda – joined the project as executive producer, about a year after his first Oscar-winning film, “Summer of Soul”, made its own. premiere at Sundance.
Fellow Roots member Ray Angry teamed up with Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell to compose much of the score, while Questlove’s company Two and Five were involved in Participant’s impact campaign. “They’ve certainly been very vocal about the decisions,” Brown said. “Questlove has a lot of political views.” As the film wrapped, Questlove met her family via Zoom. “Questlove meeting his loved ones was amazing to watch,” Brown said.
La Clotilda was a key character in the film, and Brown knew it would be an enticing way to engage the audience in her story. “When I started meeting people, I felt like they all knew the ship was there,” she said, noting how many people had grown up with stories about their ancestors. “So that was obviously true – if they find it, it’s going to be this huge plot point.”
One of the film’s most poignant moments shows a room full of people, including many of Clotilda’s descendants, standing in front of a large model of the slave ship, taking in the hideous geography of what their ancestors endured. Brown’s cameras captured the reactions on the faces. “The whole movie could be that scene,” she realized at the time. “I was trying to keep my composure and not show any expression during filming; it was extremely difficult for the crew.
In the editing room, Brown had to make decisions about how to act out what they saw. “There were things that we didn’t even put in place,” she said. “Muted things that white people were saying in the room: ‘Like really? Did you just say that? How much of that can you put in the movie? So there were a lot more moments like that.
Finally, in a statement to Clotilda’s descendants posted to NBC News via email on October 15 around the film’s release, Meg and Helen Meaher responded to “Descendant.” The actions of their ancestor Timothy Meaher, they said, “were wrong and unforgivable and had consequences that impacted generations of people. Our family has been silent about this for too long. However, we hope that we, the current generation of the Meaher family, can start a new chapter.
In a statement in response from Clotilda’s descendants, they expressed hope that the Meahers would share any “historical records, artifacts or oral history that may 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 really looking at ‘What are your biases? What are your blind spots?’” she said. “Are you willing to listen to someone who might not see things the way you do?”
“Descendant” is now streaming on Netflix, along with Brown’s previous “The Order of Myths.”