Netflix Doc ‘Descendant’ Recounts The Last Known Slave Ship

men 2019, the remains of the last known slave ship, the Clotilda, they were discovered by a National Geographic-affiliated team led by archaeologist James Delgado, 159 years after it sank in Alabama’s Mobile River. Congress had banned the importation of enslaved people in 1808. But the ship made its voyage more than 50 years later, in 1860, so its owner, Timothy Meaher, had it burned to destroy evidence of the illegal voyage.

Attempts to hide the history of the Clotilda it failed, as the descendants of the 110 enslaved African captives still live in the Mobile area, preserving their relatives’ stories in a neighborhood known as Africatown. They are front and center in Descendant, the Sundance Award-winning documentary arriving on Netflix on October 21, made in association with President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground.

Among these descendants is the documentary’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 It’s one of those movies you have to have a conversation about once you see it.” To start those conversations, the filmmakers also launched a website with guides to support mobile community organizations and recording tools and conversation starters to help people begin the process of preserving their own family stories.

TIME spoke with the film’s director, Margaret Brown, herself a Mobile native, about the purpose of the project, why some local residents still deny the story of The Clotildaand the challenges facing the community of the ship’s descendants today.

TIME: How did you connect with the descendants of the Clotildagain their trust and make them appear on camera and talk about such personal matters?

Brown: I made this movie for four and a half years. I did it with Kern Jackson, who is in the film and is also a co-writer and producer on the film. He wrote his dissertation on Africatown, and he has these field recordings of descendants, of people in the community, that he recorded over a period of years, beginning in the ’90s. Emmett [a Clotilda descendant] asked if he could have a bunch of dvd’s [of Brown’s previous film Order of the Myths, about local segregated Mardi Gras celebrations] and pass them on to people in the community. It helped me gain people’s trust. I didn’t learn about The Clotilda and Africatown growing in Mobile. She was not, as far as I can remember, in the school curriculum.

Descendants of Clotilda and community activists in a still from ‘Descendant’.

Courtesy of Netflix

Read More: History Demands We Preserve the Wreck of America’s Last Slave Ship

Given the recent discovery of the ship, It seems that the moment was perfect to make a documentary on this subject.

When we started, we had no idea that we would find the ship. In fact, I thought they wouldn’t find the ship because we started filming two years before the ship was found. We entered when they found [another] boat. Was not boat. The community calls it the No-tilda.

Why were the remains of The Clotilda only discovered in 2019?

There is an argument that it was not discovered in 2019. It was kind of an open secret. Obviously, the Meaher family knew exactly where he was. And I think the community [of Clotilda descendants] knew where it was. There is a scene where [the descendants] They’re having a celebration under the bridge by all the chemical plants, Emmett points out. [to] where is. So there’s this general idea of ​​where The Clotilda it is because it has been transmitted.

The documentary delves into the environmental issues facing Africatown. What are those problems and how are they a legacy of the Clotilda?

Right now, Africatown is completely surrounded by heavy industry. International Paper was up and out one day, and many of the jobs in Africatown historically came from International Paper. There is a lot of cancer in Africatown that many of the residents believe is strongly related to the International Paper plant. They left and didn’t clean up after themselves. There is a lot of industrial waste. There’s a real fight right now to clean up what’s left [behind].

There is industrial zoning around the populated residential areas of Africatown, and when you go there, it is very noisy. It’s really smelly. Your head hurts when you’re in the cemetery because it’s next to an asphalt plant.

There is this legacy of the Meaher family leasing land to heavy industry that surrounds this group of people who were brought into this country illegally. I think there are Africatowns all over the country with stories like that.

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I thought it was very interesting that you took the time in the documentary to focus on the diving lessons that the children of Clotilda descendants take. Why is it important to highlight that?

The Kamau road [Sadiki, marine archaeologist] explains it, it is like recovering the water. The water was a site of trauma, and now the water is a source of power. He talks about statistics on black kids who can’t swim, and scuba diving actually opens up all these careers. Gives you confidence in the water, teaches you how to swim. These [children] could be the future people who dive into The Clotilda and recover your history, connect with your ancestors. There is so much power in that.

Are there any myths that you are trying to debunk or misconceptions that you want to clear up with this documentary?

When they found the ship, all of a sudden this artifact appeared that was very powerful… When we started filming, there were white people saying off-camera, “well, those people [Black descendants of The Clotilda captives] they are like making that up to get attention.” They wouldn’t say it on camera, but they would say it off camera. We’d say, “Would you like to talk about that?” [And the white people would say,] “Nope.” Even now, there are verbatim records in the genealogical library of Mobile of [the] trip, and [some white people] they’re still like, “yeah, [the Black people] they’re making it up.” Some of the [white] the people saying this were people who had an agenda, because they could have industrial property in Africatown.

What do you hope people take away from watching the documentary?

I want people to see history differently. In 1860, when The Clotilda approached, who knew how to read and write? Who was writing the story? They were mostly wealthy white men. This is a film that shows that telling stories and conveying your personal story can be a radical thing.

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write to Olivia B. Waxman at

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