Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2022 4:57 pm 
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People and a place and the indelible scar of enslavement

The power and deep message of Descendant is all in the details, which are a gradual accumulation of moments whose collective import is much more than any one of them or any simple statement, any explanation. Early on Kern Jackson, of the University of South Alabama, says his preference is for messy data and messy history, not the neatly worked out and organized kind. This expresses the spirit of Descendant too, because here things, as suggested, gradually sift out, as if by themselves. We do our own thinking and above all our own feeling, through the people, whom we experience more powerfully thanks to the warm, present cinematography of Zac Manuel and Justin Zweifach.

Above all this is a film about place, about uncovering secrets, and about feeling roots. One senses it is a great film, though it's hard to say how and why it gains that status. You are advised to read the Rolling Stone review by K. Austin Collins, who best elucidates the film's original insight and formal invention. Collins starts with a jaw-dropping drone shot that doesn't come till midway in the film: he understands how Brown's remarkable process is one of discovery arrived at crab-wise, not of declaration - and that, though it arrives to catch us from behind, as Descendant becomes a documentary about a place it also becomes a study in environmental justice , and Collins co-reviews it with the Indian documentary about bad air and saving birds, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes. We discover now, at midpoint, that this little compound of tranquil greenery and empty spaces that is Africatown, thanks to lax zoning laws controlled like the local politics by descendants of enslavers, is surrounded with heavy-polluting industry and provided the descendants with a legacy of cancer.

Descendant is about the hidden in plain sight history of enslavement. But it's also about how places don't change. And what's good about that is it means people don't forget. The descendants of the people brought illegally from Benin/Dahomey in 1860 are still here, and so are the descendants of the people who brought them.

Doing that had been illegal since 1808 though owning enslaved people was still allowed in the US until 1865. This is a weird discovery for most of us, perhaps, in itself. The Clotilda cargo people from Dahomey therefore, after all the trauma and the loss of a culture, were only enslaved for five years. When they were released, they were sold some lousy land to have property of their own. The remnant of consolidation of that is Africatown. It was lousy then and it's lousy now, even lousier, a resident explains, with a highway running through where when he was growing up there was a quiet street with shops. Perhaps if it had prospered there would have been a massacre, like the Black Wall Street one in Tulsa in 1921.

But the place arrives to us by indirection. The focus here is on the Clotilda and its history. Timothy Meaher, who apparently arranged the voyage of the Clotilda with Captain William Foster, had him burn the vessel to hide what had been done. The thread that runs through the pleasingly meandering line of Descendant is the search for the real underwater traces of this last slave ship, pursued particularly by a diver and archaelogist, Kamau Sadiki. Sadiki is with the Smithsonian Slave Wrecks Project and an organizer and also an instructor of Diving With A Purpose (DWP), an international organization committed to resurrecting the stories of slave shipwrecks from the bottom of the sea through underwater archaeology documentation - and also teaching young Black kids to swim, as we see here.

The remnants of the Clotilda are found. This is an event that changes everything and changes nothing.

As we meet descendants of the Clotilda's original cargo, we learn they all know about this. The enslaved people were forbidden to speak of it, but the knowledge was variously passed down by oral transmission through the generations - knowledge dramatized in the film by readings by descendants from a book repressed, or shut away, for nearly a hundred years, Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” She is a figure of African American history herself, who wrote the book from talking with t Cudjo Lewis, a last living survivor of the Clotilda journey.

We meet his young descendant Emmett Lewis, a sturdy, folky-spoken and incredibly charismatic young man with long dreadlocks who tells how an elder told him about the history as he lingered a lot in the burial ground with many of the community's tombstones and memories where he learned to listen to the ancestors.

The place is Africatown, known also as Plateau, just north of downtown Mobile, Alabama. The descendants of the people brought on the Clotilda are there, and nearby are the descendants of the criminal white men who connived to bring the prisoners from Dahomey, 110 of them, held for three weeks in the swamps before they were distributed to their three different "owners." We meet both, though we spend most of the time with the Black people, and also with others, Black and White, whose interest is in the history of this event and place.

This may after all be a film even more about people more than about place, but they seem inseparable. Director Margaret Brown follows various people around, whose vernacular eloquence impresses in various ways. One young woman, Jocelyn Davis, impresses with her alertness and openness. After the remnants of the Clotilda have been found and she has viewed a large realistic reconstruction of it a and wept, and we have wept with her, she says she doesn't know what is coming next, but she is excited and ready. Emmett Lewis goes to visit a restored plantation house of the slave owners, a beautiful place, and yet, as he says, evil, and that sequence also is one, of many, that made my toes curl, which is what happens when something is too deep for tears. What a crash course in all that the right wing wants to expunge from America's textbooks. An important film, and a cunningly made one in a great documentary tradition of finding and showing.

Descendant, 109 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2022, showing also in festivals at SXSW, CPH DOX (Copenhagen), Boston, Birmingham, Camden, and in the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival. Metacritic rating 87%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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