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Laramie Movie Scope: Descendant

Uncovering the past in Africatown Alabama

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 19, 2022 – The past never really stays buried in the past, especially in Africatown, Alabama where the shadows of slavery linger on in the form of the legendary last slave ship, the Clotilda, and the properties associated with the owners of the Clotilda are omnipresent in and around Africatown. This is the subject of this documentary film, “Descendant” which is currently streaming on Netflix

For 160 years, the legend of the Clotilda has been passed down in families whose ancestors had been ripped from their homes and families in Africa in 1860 and transported to Alabama in the last known American slave ship. Slavery was illegal at the time, so the Clotilda was burned and sunk in the Mobile Delta to hide the evidence. It was forbidden for the slaves to talk about the ship, or their illegal passage to America. The last slave from the Clotilda reportedly died in 1940.

The story goes that the voyage of the last slave ship to America started on a wager by Alabama shipbuilder Timothy Meaher, who bet he could smuggle slaves into Alabama despite the anti-slavery laws. He had the ship, and he saw his chance when the powerful King of Dahomey in West Africa, who had thousands of prisoners captured in war, was willing to sell them into slavery at the port of Whydah.

After years of searching, divers in 2018 finally found the long hidden wreckage of the burned and blasted Clotilda in the Mobile Delta mud, right next to property owned by the Meaher family. In 1861, the United States government prosecuted a member of the same family for violating anti-slavery laws in the case of US vs Byrnes Meaher, Timothy Meaher and John Dabey. The case was dropped, reportedly due to the impending Civil War and a lack of evidence, namely, the missing ship and its shipping manifest.

With the identity of the found ship confirmed as the Clotilda in 2019, local residents feel vindicated that many of the stories passed down through the generations have now been confirmed. In 2018, another story came to light in the form of a film, and transcribed oral history directly from Cudjo Kazoola Lewis of Africatown, who had come to America on the Clotilda. That silent film, and the book, are both featured in the film, along with Emmett Lewis, a direct descendant of Cudjo, who features prominently in the movie.

The film of Cudjo was made by pioneering filmmaker and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston in 1928, seven years before Cudjo died. Hurston also transcribed the story told by Cudjo about the Clotilda and the founding of Africatown. His story was published posthumously in 2018 under the title, “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo.’” It was supposed to have been published in 1931, but it remained locked away until 2018.

Today, Africatown, located three miles north of downtown Mobile, is an uncomfortable reminder of America's unsavory slaver past. Founded in the 1800s by Cudjo and other West Africans, it has been encroached upon by industrial properties, making it an unhealthy place to live, not unlike many other places in America where racial minorities live.

There are high cancer rates there. In 2017, Africatown residents filed suit against a paper mill located adjacent to the town. Residents are currently fighting industrial zoning. Industry and pollution are among the reasons the population of Africatown has plummeted in recent years.

The film, by Margaret Brown (“The Order of Myths”) features a number of descendants of the Clotilda, as well as the people who found the ship. Newspaper reporter Ben Raines and auto mechanic shop owner Joe Turner. They are interviewed in a scene in the film.

Raines says, “The first people to lay hands on the last American Slave ship in 160 years ... A newspaper reporter ... a man who owns an auto mechanic shop. We have pictures. We have proof. We found it ... I'm proud of my role in it because I know what this is going to mean for Africatown, and I think that's so cool.”

So what does it mean to find this slave ship? Sheila Flanagan formerly of the Mobile History Museum, says in the film, “We've never had the opportunity to embrace our history. It's never been valued. And so, this is the first instance where this one group of people can actually say where they came from.”

She continued, “I have no idea where my African ancestors came from. But this is one group that can do that. And with the sense of pride that that brings, the African-American community, for one time, can say this is real, this is us. These people are part of us. We are part of them.”

The movie includes scenes concerning plans for a museum and other exhibits to commemorate the Clotilda and Africatown. This film rates a B.

Additional notes about the film: Sharp-eyed movie fans may have noticed a reference to the African Empire of Dahome earlier in this review. Yes, that is the same empire that is front and center in another 2022 movie, “The Woman King,” starring Viola Davis. In that movie, the slave trading conducted by Dahome was downplayed, but history indicates Dahome slave trading did not end in the 1820s. It was still going 40 years later.

Another note about “Descendant.” It is connected to politics. Barack and Michelle Obama, the former American President and First Lady, are connected to this film through their production company, Higher Ground Productions, that they founded with Netflix in 2018.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2022 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]