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Review: Netflix's new film 'Descendant' should be required viewing in the US

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Emmett Lewis appears in the documentary “Descendant” by Margaret Brown and produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground. Picture: Netflix

Here’s something that many Americans likely don’t know: Although slavery was not abolished until Congress passed the 13th Amendment in 1865, two years after President Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, the United States banned the importation of Africans as slaves in 1808.

In other words, making a run to Africa in a ship to enslave humans was illegal for 57 years before actual slavery was made illegal in the US But that didn’t stop plantation owners and traffickers. What is thought to be the last ship to bring slaves from Africa, about a year before the outbreak of the Civil War, landed off the coast of Mobile, Ala., in 1860.

The ship was called the Clotilda, built by wealthy shipbuilder and landowner Timothy Meaher and captained by William Foster. When the Clotilda returned from Africa with more than 100 enslaved humans, Foster intentionally sunk the ship to hide the evidence.

A street in Africatown, a suburb of Mobile, Ala. Picture: Netflix

“Descendant,” a remarkable and moving new Netflix documentary directed by Margaret Brown and produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground, is the story of the discovery of that ship in 2019, and what it means to the Mobile suburb of Africatown. What’s amazing in these times of constant movement — how many people who currently live in the Bay Area are actually from the Bay Area? — is that the Mobile/Africatown area remains the home of more than 100 descendants of slaves brought by the Clotilda, as well as descendants of Meaher and Foster.

Brown explores the grim history of the Clotilda slaves and their descendants—for decades, talking about the Clotilda around white people was risking death. There is footage of Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last surviving slaves from the ship, who died in 1935, and we meet his direct descendant, Emmett Lewis, who is caretaker of the Africatown graveyard where Cudjoe is buried.

But “Descendant,” which was awarded a special jury award for creative vision at the Sundance Film Festival, isn’t just about the discovery of a historical artifact. It documents how Africatown has been the victim of suppression for decades. The town is surrounded by industrial pollution. Educational and employment opportunities have been lacking. And wouldn’t you know, the tourism that is anticipated from the finding of the sunken ship will benefit many white business owners, including descendants of Meaher, who declined to participate in the film.

Descendants of slave brought to Alabama by the Clotilda in 1860 participate in a community meeting in “Descendant.” Picture: Netflix

Much of the history of the Clotilda and its slaves were passed down orally. A Black historian, Zora Neale Hurston, documented the oral traditions and interviewed Cudjoe Lewis for a 1931 book, “Barracoon,” but it was suppressed and went unpublished in 2018. Some even doubted that the ship even existed, one reason its discovery was so meaningful.

Some of the most moving scenes come when Brown has Lewis’ descendants read excerpts from “Barracoon.” Another is when a descendant of Foster meets one of Lewis’ progeny.

Ironically, “Descendant” arrives at a time when many school systems in the South are banning books like “Barracoon” and trashing curriculums that properly contextualize slavery and its lasting legacy. As one descendant of slave owners says in the film, “We were raised with the idea that our ancestors were courageous and dashing. We were never taught that the Confederacy was to maintain slavery. We were taught, ‘But look at General Lee!’ The losers generally accept the fact that they’re losers. They don’t name schools after Josef Mengele. They don’t name schools after losing generals. But in the South we do.”

That’s why “Descendant” isn’t just necessary. It’s urgent.

NOT“Descending”: Documentary. Directed by Margaret Brown. (PG. 109 mins.) Available to stream starting Friday, Oct. 21, on Netflix.