Photo | Cinetic Media.
Margaret Brown’s new film on Africatown entitled “Descendant” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22.
At its best, art is a teacher. Not just for those who take in the final product, but for the artist struggling with the process, too.
That has been the case with filmmaker and native Mobilian Margaret Brown. The documentarian’s latest effort in her heralded career, “Descendant,” is more than just a highly anticipated entry in the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It’s the fruit of a learning curve that began in her initial work with a hometown focus.
Brown’s widely hailed 2008 documentary “The Order of Myths” was a candid glimpse into the racial segregation dominating Mobile’s Mardi Gras. Its emotional fulcrum was the discovery that one Carnival queen’s ancestors launched the illegal enterprise that smuggled in another Carnival queen’s Africa-born ancestors in the slave ship Clotilda.
After the Civil War ended their bondage, Clotilda survivors formed the Africatown community in Plateau, north of Mobile’s then-city limits. Though the tale made it into the writings of Emma Langdon Roche, Zora Neale Hurston and Albert Murray, the filmmaker was unaware.
“It definitely wasn’t something I heard about growing up here. If so, it didn’t infiltrate my middle-school brain, so I didn’t learn about it until ‘Order of Myths,’” Brown said.
Knowledge gaps were filled in as she spent more time with University of South Alabama African American Studies Director Kern Jackson. His doctorate in folklore and ethnomusicology proved not only essential for “The Order of Myths,” but a linchpin for “Descendant.”
“Kern and I sat at Satori [Coffee House] for years killing our kidneys with acid from coffee during our conversations and creative meanderings,” Brown said.
In 2018, Mobile reporter Ben Raines thought he located the scuttled wreckage of the Clotilda in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Shipowner Tim Meaher burned it attempting to avoid federal prosecution even though word of his misdeeds crackled through Mobile.
Raines’ 2018 find wasn’t the Clotilda, but it launched Brown’s project. When Raines finally discovered Clotilda’s wreckage a year later, the international attention added weight to Brown’s film.
Naturally, the pandemic slowed production. Many Africatown residents are elderly or have medical issues that prove central to the film’s story, so interviews were challenging.
“There were long spots where we weren’t shooting, or only shooting people outside, or only shooting younger people. It was so hard to make a film like that in a way I thought was moral, trying to film people and consider their health,” Brown said.
It was hard to reconfigure the filmmaking process, to shift some post-production work to suddenly fallow time periods. Remote editing software exists — Brown edited another film on the Eastern Shore’s jubilees during the protracted COVID downtime — but there’s no true replacement for the standard process with everyone together in small rooms. Plus, editors typically come on board when the most work can be squeezed into the tightest window.
“You only have so much money to pay an editor,” Brown noted. “That’s the hard, economic truth of documentary making.”
Africatown’s saga holds numerous layers and tangents nearly impossible to fold into one film. Admirably, Brown aims to cast a net wide enough for all of it.
Portions will ring familiar to regular Lagniappe readers. That includes Raines’ Clotilda quest, something this newspaper detailed extensively in Summer 2019. There’s also the environmental racism and long-term poisoning of Africatown by surrounding heavy industry, a subject this writer covered in March 2021.
I was admittedly confused when characters alluded to doubts about the Africatown saga, as if the ship and journey were fabricated. I’ve yet to encounter such in my 40 years in Mobile. A quick search through library databases found just one cynic, a British historian whose threadbare facts about Clotilda indicated just cursory knowledge.
But Brown’s film is as much about narratives and perspectives as it is about muddy ship timbers. That theme haunted scenes in a historically treasured neighborhood nearly swallowed by a lumberyard, an encroachment rumored to have consumed old gravesites.
It girded one character’s suspicions of exploitative tourism configured to chiefly benefit power brokers. Her jaundiced eye is hard-earned.
It arose when the Meaher family declined participation. Despite Brown’s generally amicable relationship with them, silence rules.
“That’s too bad because I think a lot of positives could come out of [their involvement],” Brown said.
For some of us, “Descendant” is a spotlight on travesty. It’s also a statement to resilience. For its creator, the film aims to recast certainty, on what is past and what endures.
“It’s like Kern says, ‘The truth is in the bits and pieces,’” Brown said.
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