Our Play, Pause or Stop review of the new Netflix documentary.
by Andrew Morgan
Published on EST
Descendant now streaming on Netflix
The latest Netflix Oscar Hopeful documentary, Descendant, is now streaming, but should you give it a watch?
Produced by Night Tide production, Higher Ground Productions (the company run by Michelle and Barack Obama) acquired the rights with Netflix to this documentary in early January 2022.
Set in the small Alabama community of Africatown, the film follows the descendants of the survivors of The Clotilda, the last known slave ship to transport human beings as cargo from Africa to America illegally. The ship itself, a centuries-old open secret, is being pursued by marine archeologists to confirm its existence.
In 1860, decades after the U.S. banned the practice of kidnapping and importing humans for enslavement, yet five years before the 13th amendment emancipated the nation’s already enslaved people, a ship named the Clotilda docked in Mobile, Alabama. There, it unloaded more than one hundred African souls before being ordered destroyed and sunk to eradicate the evidence. Freed in 1865, yet unable to return to their homeland, the survivors founded Africatown—a testament to their strength which persists today despite the town’s governmental neglect and economic disparity.
“I don’t want the momentum of this story to just be focused on the ship. It’s not all about that ship.” – Africatown Resident and Clotilda Descendant, Joycelyn Davis
While the historical significance of the story and the discovery itself should be enough to entice audiences, for me, the major takeaways from this film lie more in the current residents of Africatown and how the Clotilda represents a pattern of arrogant, despicable, & racist behavior that has been thrust upon this community.
In one of the key themes in the documentary, the family responsible for the Clotilda’s existence still remain in that area and own factory land that engulfs this small community on all sides. These factories have been found to be largely responsible for a substantial increase in Cancer cases in that community and represents a form of environmental racism that is all too common in predominantly black communities all over the U.S. No matter how many generations have passed since the Clotilda’s voyage, the film shows all the different ways that systemic racism has harmed these families since their ancestors arrived in this country. Notably, no one from Timothy Meaher’s descendants (the family of the man who orchestrated the Clotida’s voyage) agreed to be interviewed for this film.
Veda Tunstall in Descendant. Cr. Participant/Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
Another interesting perspective considered in the film is the impact of the ship’s discovery, who stands to benefit, and how this can be harnessed to empower the people of this community who truly deserve it. Flanked by white politicians and business people, the people of Africatown are wise to look beyond the emotional impact of the ship’s discovery. Tourism money can revitalize their community and help them fight back against the mental & physical oppression they have languished in for almost 2 centuries.
“This story is still being written. It’s going on right now. And we have dreams and hopes for the community,” said Africatown Heritage Preservation Society Co-Founder Joe Womack at the Descendant Q&A at the New York Film Festival, “America likes a good story. This is a good story. You have bad guys and good guys. We’re the good guys. You root for the underdog. We’re the underdog. And you can really help us and what we’re doing for the community because Africatown’s story is America’s story.”
Joe Womack in Descendant. Cr. Participant/Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
This story seems to be resonating with critics all across the country as it has been met with impressive praise and accolades. Back in January, Descendant premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it took home a Special Jury Award for Creative Vision and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries. Since then, the film has been officially selected for SXSW and the New York Film Festival. Most recently, it has been nominated for 3 Critics Choice Documentary Awards including Best Documentary Feature.
As a 3x Best Documentary Feature Winner at the Oscars, Netflix is particularly well suited to bring Descendant to the big stage in 2023. One of their previous winners, American Factory, was produced by Higher Ground Productions, a company backed by former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. Descendant was acquired by Higher Ground and Netflix out of Sundance in 2022. To add to their impressive team, Descendant was executive produced by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who is himself a descendant of Charlie Lewis, one of the enslaved passengers of The Clotilda. “I hope Descendant is one of those films you have to have a conversation about once you see it,” Thompson says.
Overall, Descendant is a moving and well constructed film that makes you see the effects of slavery & institutional racism from all sides. It’s not only about undiscovered historical findings, but also about closure for a community, corporate greed, environmental justice, historical education reform, and much more. This is the best film on the subject of these prolonged effects since Ava DuVernay’s 2016 Netflix Documentary “13th” and should also be nominated at the Oscars like “13th” was years ago.
A direct descendant of Clotilda survivor Charlie Lewis, Joycelyn Davis is a lifelong resident of Africatown. Growing up, she was steeped in the history of her ancestors as told to her by her family and members of the community, and she’s a living testament to the ripple effects of the injustice that brought her forefathers to Alabama. Environmental racism has resulted in zoning that’s allowed a series of industrial sites to encroach on Africatown, bringing pollution and disease to its residents. Davis herself is a cancer survivor. Working with the Clotilda Descendant’s Association, Davis remains deeply involved in the preservation of her community’s history and heritage.
Descendant is going to be a major player in the Documentary Feature awards race for the next few months and for good reason.
For more on what’s coming up next from the Obama’s production company, check out our preview.
ANDREW MORGAN is a film critic & podcaster with 20 years of experience on the sets & offices of film & television. He has been a podcaster since 2015 including his latest entertainment review show, Recent Activity. Previously, Andrew hosted a Netflix Original Movie Podcast called The NOMCAST where he covered over 150+ films and had the pleasure of interviewing the likes of Michaela Conlin, Joel Courtney, Michael Fimognari & more. He lives in the Northeast of the United States with his wife and 2 children.
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