Generations of trauma and lost heritage started with a bet. A bet made by a human trafficker named Tim Meaher in the 1860s that he could smuggle African slaves into the country after it had been outlawed.
Netflix’s documentary, Descendant, tells the powerful story of the tragic and somewhat secret history of the slave ship known as the Clotilda. It was the last known ship to bring African slaves to the United States. The ship’s history, and the fate of its 110 passengers, went untold for many years until its wreckage was finally located in 2019.
The documentary is a fascinating look into what happens when folklore becomes fact, and how those facts can unearth great injustices and generational trauma that must be addressed in hopes that it will lead to healing. It highlights the importance of oral storytelling, and how the spirits of our ancestors live and thrive through our remembrance of them passed from one generation to the next.
Descendants of the Africans who arrived in America on The Clotilda have spent decades trying to decipher and share the full story of what their ancestors went through when they arrived in Africatown, an enclave near Mobile, Alabama. Director Margaret Brown beautifully gives the subjects a platform to describe and discuss the hardships their ancestors endured after being brought to a foreign land in which they had no rights and were brutally separated from their families.
The film skillfully weaves in excerpts from celebrated black authoress, Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, which documents the life of Cudjoe Lewis, and chronicles his journey from West Africa to America and helping to form the Africatown community. These insights serve as a narrative linking the great injustices of the past to those of the present.
Many residents of the Africatown have suffered with various illness due to polluters using their home as a dumping ground for toxic waste. The sacred and hollowed cemeteries that contain the remains of their ancestor’s house toxic chemicals that are slowly killing the residents. Clotilda descendants like cancer survivor Joycelyn Davis can hardly focus on the history of her ancestors being unearthed right before her very eyes, because she’s battling the injustices unfolding in the present.
Although the documentary is centered around a dark, depressing, and infuriating history, there is some light provided as the descendants make plans to move forward and honor the legacy of those who came before them. The Africatown Heritage House Museum is still forthcoming and preserved DNA evidence from the ship may provide an opportunity for more descendants to be linked to ancestors who were brought over on the ship.
Descendant is an engrossing documentary about a town’s shared traumatic past, the strength of its resident and their ancestors, and the importance of oral histories being passed on throughout the generations.
Descendant is now streaming on Netflix.
Descendant is an engrossing documentary about a town's shared traumatic past, the strength of its resident and their ancestors, and the importance of oral histories being passed on throughout the generations.
Writer. Video Essayist. Film/TV Critic. Pop Culture Enthusiast.
When he isn’t writing for Geek Vibes Nation or creating content for his YouTube channel, Tristian can be found typing away at the young adult novel he has been working on for three years.