A half-century after Congress outlawed importing enslaved people, Timothy Meaher hired a ship captain to bring over a hundred kidnapped Africans to Alabama. Then he burned the ship. The two-masted schooner called the Clotilda remained sunken and hidden from 1860 to 2018, when it was discovered by Ben Raines, a journalist who had doggedly tracked it down. Raines wrote a book about the ship and its discovery called The Last Slave Ship.
But, as the trailer for Descendant warns us, don’t get too focused on the ship. It’s a real-life McGuffin buried in the Alabama muck, but the real story is about the lives of those who came on the ship and families they created.
The documentary from filmmaker Margaret Brown “follows descendants of the survivors from the Clotilda, the last ship that carried enslaved Africans to the United States, as they reclaim their story.” At least one part of that story is the creation of Africatown, a thriving community that has over decades been surrounded completely by heavy industrial zones, marring a profoundly historical land with chemical pollution and inhuman conditions. The film also features conversations with historians while it weaves the past into the present. Plus, since the last living survivors of the Clotilda died in the 1930s, some of the descendants in the film are only one or two generations removed from the men and women Meaher kidnapped. It’s a potent reminder that the past isn’t so far away.