By Anita Bennett
HOLLYWOOD — A new Netflix documentary is now streaming about the legacy of 110 African captives transported on the last known slave ship to arrive on U.S. shores 50 years after federal law banned the import of slaves.
“Descendant,” by documentary filmmaker Margaret Brown, details the story of the Clotilda, the ship that landed near Mobile, Alabama, in 1860.
In 2019, a team of marine archeologists found wreckage from the vessel below the surface of the Mobile River. The discovery brought pride and answers to descendants of the men, women and children who traveled on the Clotilda from West Africa to Alabama.
Instead of focusing on the ship, Brown wanted to shine a spotlight on the people living in the slave descendant community of Africatown, just a few miles north of downtown Mobile.
“The ship was the perfect catalyst. And also, it is a relic that connects people to their history,” Brown said in recent phone interview.
Like so many communities of color around the nation, including here in California, Africatown is choked with pollution from surrounding factories — a problem known as “environmental racism.”
A 2019 USC study found lead contamination in the baby teeth of children living near the Exide battery plant in mostly Hispanic Vernon, just outside Los Angeles.
“Measuring lead in baby teeth is an indication of exposures that the child received before they were even born,” study author Jill Johnston said by phone Jan. 10.
Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at USC, specializes in climate justice and environmental health disparities. She noted that industrial polluters often build in lower income Black and brown neighborhoods because there’s less resistance
“There’s been sort of consistent findings in the U.S. that when we look at hazardous waste sites, look at these industrial facilities, toxic facilities, that they are concentrated in communities of color,” she said. “Why? The legacy of systemic racism and land use practices sort of going back to … historical redlining as well as a sort of political marginalization of communities that gave them less voice or … political clout to keep facilities from coming into their neighborhoods.”
In Africatown, residents for years complained of health problems, including a high incidence of cancer, which they believe is caused by emissions from surrounding lumberyards and a now-defunct paper mill.
In the film, one resident described how ash from the factories would blanket cars and homes like snow.
“Descendant” screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award.”
The film is backed by the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions. In August, former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama welcomed attendees to a screening at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival in Massachusetts.
“They came and surprised the audience and gave each gave individual speeches about why they wanted to get involved in the movie,” Brown said.
As interest in the film grew, Canfor, current owner of the lumber yard surrounding Africatown, announced plans to build a new facility and “wind down” its Mobile operation.
“They announced that they were going to leave over the course of two years. So that’s monumental,” Brown said. “They’re doing it slowly, but it’s happening.”
Brown, who is white, grew up in Mobile and said she felt a sense of responsibility telling the story of Africatown.
“I felt like my blind spots, as a white person are immense,” she explained, adding that she worked alongside a team of Black historians and film producers.
While the residents of Africatown shared their stories for the project, Brown said the area’s white families — including descendants of Clotilda owner Timothy Meaher — wanted no part of the film.
“I thought I could get the white community to talk to me,” she said. “It wasn’t just the Meaher family that didn’t talk to me. There were very few white people who go on the record.”
Last month the documentary made the Oscars shortlist, moving forward in the race for the 2023 Academy Awards.
“The shortlist means more exposure. It means more people will see the film and want to get involved,” Brown said.