How Margaret Brown filmed one of the most revealing documentary scenes of the year

He Descendant The director could not have anticipated the discovery of the slave ship. Clotilda or the silence of the family that had owned it.
Photo: Netflix

Margaret Brown did not believe the remains of the Clotilda would be tracked down when she started shooting Descendant. “I thought they weren’t going to find it,” he said. He Clotilda, the last known slave ship to reach the US, landed near Mobile, Alabama, in 1860, more than half a century after the international slave trade was declared illegal and punishable by death. After delivering its cargo of 110 West African captives, the schooner was set on fire and scuttled to hide the evidence, its existence, including the fact that it was owned by Timothy Meaher, a member of what remains one of the most prominent families in the city. literally and figuratively buried. Although the rediscovery of the Clotilda in 2019 it becomes the center of Brown’s documentary, which makes Descendant so momentous is its exploration of everything the ship stands for, from the suppression of black history to the vastness of white denial.

Both forces are highlighted in the most revealing scene of Descendantthat takes place in the waters where the remains of the Clotilda They were found. The film’s subjects are descended from the ship’s survivors, many of whom settled in the area after the end of the Civil War, founding the historic black community of Africatown. The Meahers, who own much of the land around Africatown, remain conspicuously offscreen and silent. But a member makes an unexpected appearance at a 2020 festival hosted by the film’s subjects. An unassuming middle-aged man approaches to introduce himself to Robert Lewis, a descendant of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last survivors of the Clotilda and the Atlantic slave trade. The man’s name is Michael Foster, and he is a distant cousin of William Foster, who had been the captain of the ship. “It’s a bit strange because my relative caused all this,” he tells the camera, admitting that he wasn’t sure he was welcome, though of course he is, albeit with some surprise.

As some of the attendees take a boat out to the wreck site, Michael Foster poses for a photo with two Clotilda descendants, and someone points out that the last time a Foster and a Lewis were together was the night the ship burned. It’s a welcome moment of extreme discomfort, a reminder of how unprepared even those ostensibly willing to face a legacy of historical atrocities are. Perhaps this is why Foster says what he says about how, in the records, Cudjo Lewis claimed that he had some respect for William Foster because he treated captives well, that his kinswoman was therefore one of the good guys. . Diver Kamau Sadiki, standing next to Foster, replies firmly, “A good teacher, a bad teacher: he’s the same in my book.”

Brown, originally from Mobile, first turned her camera on her hometown to explore its Mardi Gras celebration, the oldest in the country and completely segregated with separate organizations crowning a white king and queen and a black king and queen. That 2008 documentary, the order of mythsIt was, in Brown’s words, a work of “white anthropology” about tradition and what aspects of the past are celebrated and buried. There is a scene where Black Mardi Gras queen Stefannie Lucas sows the seeds for Descendant nonchalantly noting that she is a descendant of Clotilda survivors, while the white queen, Helen Meaher, is a descendant of the ClotildaOwners of: “My people were on their people’s boat,” says Lucas. Time the order of myths it’s about everything that the white elite of Mobile prefers not to talk about, Descendant it is about the oral traditions that preserved that history privately for generations, passed down by those who lived it. Brown broke down the process of getting the order of myths a Descendant and capture that scene of Michael Foster in the water.

the existence of the Clotilda it had long occupied a place in limbo between local history and lore. The first time Brown remembers hearing about the boat was not until she was an adult and she was working on the order of myths. Brown remembers Helen Meaher’s mother referring to the Meahers as “the family that brought in the last slave ship.” “It was a whisper,” Brown explains. “She wanted me to know for context, but it was something you didn’t talk about. I don’t remember ever learning it in school.” One of DescendantThe subjects of, Vernetta Henson, echo this sentiment in an on-screen interview, saying, “As far as I can remember, it’s never been in the history books.”

Photo: Participant/Courtesy of Netflix

Yet for Henson and other descendants, the silence that surrounds the Clotilda It was not born out of a desire to hide the past, but out of fear of violent retaliation. Mobile is also the site of one of the last reported lynchings in the country in 1981. Details were passed down within families or, in the case of Cudjo Lewis, recounted in 1927 to Zora Neale Hurston for what would become bunkhouse, a book that would not find a publisher until 2018, partly because it was written in dialect. The remains that are visited at the end of the film are not just a remnant of the past, but inalienable proof of a half-erased history. As Africantown resident (and former New York Met member) Cleon Jones puts it onscreen: “What the ship does is give the rest of the world evidence that it happened.”

He Clotilda it was burnt down in 1860, and it was not until 2018, after the discovery of another shipwreck that was initially thought but ultimately determined not to be the Clotilda, that resources were dedicated to the search. “A lot of people from Mobile started reaching out to me and saying, ‘Are you coming back? There are some things going on that are different than it seems,’” Brown said. With some financial support from Louis Black, a producer of the order of mythsHe took his camera and got on a plane.

“Hubristically, I thought the Meaher family would talk to me,” Brown said of those early days. “Everyone was trying to get them to comment, and it’s a pretty big family.” He had reason to believe that he might have access to at least one member. In 2007, Brown followed Helen Meaher through some of Mobile’s most exclusive events as one of the themes of the order of myths. “I didn’t really think the older generation would talk, but I thought Helen would talk to me. We were in communication on Facebook. We are both runners, so we would talk about running. So she’d say, ‘I’m making this movie and it involves your family.’ I think it would be really nice if you guys commented.’ I listed many reasons why, and she just never responded. She would respond to anything about stretching for running, but never anything about “the Clotilda.

The Meahers, who were eventually reunited with Clotilda descendants in December after the release of Brown’s film, are just one of the connections between Descendant Y the order of myths. Kern Jackson, a folklorist at the University of South Alabama who served as a historical adviser on the previous film, played a larger role in this one as a co-writer, co-producer and screen presence. Jackson connected Brown with some of DescendantEventual subjects of , including Joycelyn Davis and Vernetta Henson, while she met others, like Emmett Lewis, at activist gatherings. Brown kept trying with the Meahers, but, he said, “at one point, it felt like a slap in the face to the community that the Meaher family didn’t speak up. they were like, Man, if they don’t want to talk to us, great. We live our lives so long.”

Brown did not contact Foster, that was the job of 60 minuteswhich aired a segment on the Clotilda in 2021. “They wanted it to be their thing,” Brown says. “60 minutes had this thing like a reality show where they introduce everyone: Surprise. It wasn’t the approach I would take.” But Foster appeared at the Spirit of Our Ancestors Festival on his own initiative. “I think he was very disappointed that they hid him, so he showed up to have a more legitimate connection and meet people.” Essie Chambers, one of the producers of the documentary, found out who he was, and the film crew was able to capture when he and Robert Lewis first met. It’s such a perfect organic moment that some who saw the movie assumed it was fixed. “A reporter asked me if I designed that,” Brown said.

As for that exchange on the boat, Brown remembers thinking “Wow man, really?” when they were filming. But he also points out that what he did at the time is common. “The sense of shame around slavery is masked in many ways, and I felt like we saw one of those masks in that scene. I think there is a deep understanding, at least for some people, that we did something wrong. We were looking at a coping mechanism from a white person and they corrected it at the time.”

The previous night Descendant premiered at Sundance, Brown called Foster to tell him that he had included a scene with him that he hoped would anger people. “He was like, ‘Oh, gosh, what did I say?’ and I told him. He was like, ‘Did I say that?’ and I said, ‘Yes’”. But he understood why the moment was important and called out to community members to apologize. “People in the movie who have seen that scene talk about a certain black exhaustion of that happening all the time.”

Photo: Participant/Courtesy of Netflix

As the daughter of a mobile family, Brown knows she doesn’t exist outside of the story she depicts on screen. the order of myths he reveals his relationship to one of his repeat interviewees, Dwain Luce, a former white Mardi Gras king, in a chiron towards the end of the film identifying him as his grandfather. While he had no desire to replicate Foster’s attempt to smooth over the past, he said he was looking for some kind of personal base from which to draw. Descendant, even if it was one of direct family complicity. “Maybe this sounds messy,” Brown said, “but I was looking for a way to connect to the story in the same way that I was connected to the order of myths.”

That connection didn’t surface, so he sought a different approach. Brown did something he had never done before and brought the subjects into the filming process: “I showed people in the movie scenes long before I finished, years before I finished the movie, because I wanted them to see what what he was doing and they would take insurance, since it is his story, that they were in agreement with what he was doing”.

“As a white person, I have a lot of blind spots, but I took the initiative from the community,” adds Brown. “I have these characters that were so incredible, and they were undergoing this incredible transformation that was literally living history, that they were letting me in. That is the history.

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