In 2019, the remains of the last known slave ship, The Clotilda, were discovered by a National Geographic-affiliated team led by archaeologist James Delgado, 159 years after it sunk in Alabama’s Mobile River. Congress had banned the importation of enslaved persons in 1808. But the ship made its trip more than 50 years later, in 1860, so its owner, Timothy Meaher, had it burned to destroy the evidence of the illegal voyage.
Attempts to hide the story of The Clotilda failed, as descendants of the 110 enslaved African captives still live in the Mobile area, preserving their family members’ stories in a neighborhood known as Africatown. They are front and center in Descendant, the Sundance award-winning documentary that hit Netflix on Oct. 21, produced by Participant and released in partnership with President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground and in association with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter’s Two One Five Entertainment.
Among these descendants is the doc’s executive producer, Academy Award winner Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who is related to Clotilda captive Charlie Lewis, and who said in a statement, “I hope Descendant is one of those films you have to have a conversation about once you see it.” To kickstart those conversations, Participant also launched a website with guides to supporting Mobile community organizations and conversation starters and recording tools to help people start the process of preserving their own family histories.
TIME talked to the film’s director, Margaret Brown, herself a Mobile native, about the purpose of the project, why some local residents are still in denial about the story of The Clotilda, and the challenges that the community of the ship’s descendants face today.
TIME: How did you connect with descendants of The Clotilda, earn their trust, and get them to appear on camera and talk about such personal issues?
Brown: I made this film over four and a half years. I made it with Kern Jackson, who’s in the film and is also a co-writer and a producer on the film. He wrote his dissertation in Africatown, and he has these field recordings of descendants, from people in the community, that he recorded over a period of years, starting in the ‘90s. Emmett [a Clotilda descendant] asked if he could have a bunch of DVDs [of Brown’s previous film Order of the Myths, about local segregated Mardi Gras celebrations] and pass them around to people in the community. He helped me gain people’s trust. I didn’t learn about The Clotilda and Africatown growing up in Mobile. It wasn’t, as far as I can remember, in the school curriculum.
Read more: History Demands We Preserve the Wreck of America’s Last Slave Ship
Given the recent discovery of the ship, it sounds like the timing was perfect to make a documentary on this topic.
When we started, we had no idea the ship would be found. In fact, I thought the ship would not be found because we started filming two years before they found the ship. We came in when they found [another] ship. It was not the ship. The community calls it the No-tilda.
Why were the remains of The Clotilda only discovered in 2019?
There’s an argument that it wasn’t just discovered in 2019. It was sort of an open secret. Obviously the Meaher family knew exactly where it was. And I think the community [of Clotilda descendants] kind of knew where it was. There’s a scene where [the descendants] are having a celebration under the bridge next to all the chemical plants Emmett points [to] where it is. So there’s this general idea of where The Clotilda is because it’s been passed down.
The documentary delves into the environmental issues Africatown faces. What are those issues and how are they a legacy of The Clotilda?
Right now, Africatown is completely surrounded by heavy industry. International Paper up and left one day, and a lot of the jobs in Africatown historically came from International Paper. There’s a lot of cancer in Africatown that many of the residents believe is strongly linked to the International Paper plant. They kind of left and didn’t clean up after themselves. There’s a lot of industrial waste. There’s a real fight right now to clean up what was left [behind].
There’s industrial zoning around populated residential areas of Africatown, and when you go there, it’s really loud. It’s really smelly. You get a headache when you’re in the graveyard because it’s next to an asphalt plant.
There’s this legacy of the Meaher family leasing land to heavy industry that surrounds this group of people they brought to this country illegally. I think there’s Africatowns all over the country with stories like that.
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I thought it was really interesting that you took time in the documentary to focus on scuba diving lessons that the children of Clotilda descendants take. Why is that important to feature?
The way Kamau [Sadiki, marine archaeologist] explains it, it’s like sort of reclaiming the water. The water was a site of trauma, and now the water is a source of power. He talks about statistics on Black children not knowing how to swim, and scuba diving actually opens up all of these career paths. It gives you confidence in the water, it teaches you how to swim. These [children] could be the future people who dive to The Clotilda and reclaim their history, connect themselves to their ancestors. There’s so much power in that.
Are there any myths you are trying to debunk or misconceptions you want to set the record straight on with this documentary?
When they did find the ship, suddenly there was this artifact that was very powerful…When we started filming, there would be white people that would say off-camera, ”well, those people [Black descendants of The Clotilda captives] are just like making that up for attention.” They wouldn’t say it on camera, but they would say it off camera. We’d be like, “Would you like to speak on that?” [And the white people would say,] “No.” Even now, there are literal records in the genealogical library in Mobile of [the] voyage, and [some white people] are still like, “yeah, [the Black people] are making it up.” Some of the [white] people that were saying this were people who had an agenda, because they might have industrial ownership in Africatown.
What do you hope people take away from watching the documentary?
I want people to look at history differently. In 1860, when The Clotilda came over, who was literate? Who was writing history? It was mostly wealthy white men. This is a film that shows that storytelling and passing your personal history down can be kind of radical.
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