MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In the murky waters of an Alabama river, diver Kamau Sadiki said he had to pause before boarding the last known slave ship to the United States, where 110 people were confined in hellish conditions.
“You feel the reverberation, the pain and the suffering, the screaming and the screaming,” said Sadiki, a diver who works with the Smithsonian Slave Wrecks Project. “We do this work to understand the science and archeology and collect as much data as we can to help tell the story. But there’s a whole other dimension here that we need to connect with.”
The documentary “Descendant” retells this once-submerged story, intertwining the 2019 discovery of the Clotilda ship with the stories of the descendants of the 110 people on board. Along the way, it raises questions about the legacy of slavery and what justice would look like 162 years after the ship’s voyage.
In 1860, decades after the United States banned the importation of slaves, Clotilda illegally transported 110 people from what is now the West African nation of Benin to Mobile, Alabama. With southern plantation owners demanding slaves for their cotton fields, Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could cross the Atlantic with a ship full of Africans. The ship was later sunk to hide evidence of the crime.
Slavery ended five years after the arrival of Clotilde’s captives. They saved money to start a community that came to be called Africatown. Some of her descendants continue to live there in the historic village deeply tied to her heritage but now surrounded by heavy industry in south Alabama.
Director Margaret Brown said she hopes viewers walk away with “a bit of history rewritten for them, and that they’re emotionally moved by the resilience of this community.”
“This is a community that has been telling the story, mostly passed from generation to generation, for 160 years to keep this story alive.”
In the film, the descendants talk about their family’s effort not to let Clotilda fade into history, showing home videos of relatives telling the story to younger generations. Some have read “Barracoon,” the posthumously published 1931 manuscript in which Clotilda’s former captive, Cudjo Lewis, told his story in an interview with author Zora Neale Hurston.
The documentary also focuses on the environmental challenges surrounding Africatown, with topics discussing pollution and cancer rates. Struggling with the economic legacy of slavery, one scene shows a descendant reading Lewis’s words as he sits in a prewar mansion. While the Meaher family was not involved in the film, their name is displayed on local landmarks. Another scene focuses on the buzz created by the ship’s discovery, raising questions about who will benefit from the discovery.
“I don’t want the momentum of the story to be focused only on the ship. It’s not just about that ship,” descendant Joycelyn Davis says in one scene.
Brown, who is white, was born and raised in Mobile. The descendants kept the story of Clotilda alive, but she was not taught in any history book when she was a child.
Sadiki said he hopes the story “will become part of every history book in this country” despite “efforts being made to remove these types of stories from our consciousness.”
“We really have to get past that shame and that silence. What I hope the film will do is insert, not only in our memory, but in the curriculum of this nation, the story of Clotilda,” she said.