With Descending, filmmaker Margaret Brown finds poetry where most would see the occasion for controversy. His nonfiction DIY remains firmly rooted in the fight against injustice in the Africatown neighborhood on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama. The film joins the community as they prepare to experience the long-awaited location of the Clotildethe last slave ship in America that brought their ancestors here.
Brown’s gaze constantly returns to the horizon at the water’s edge, a visual motif that seems to contain all the contradictions of the current status of the community. The sight naturally evokes a connection with their origins before the forced migration of their ancestors to America. However, a glance at the ClotildeThe Watery Grave of represents more than just a submerged piece of their history that they cannot properly process or claim. It retains a liminal quality of providence and possibility in the promise that their story extends beyond a painful past.
As stated by Kamau Sadiki, a diver who explores wrecked ships, the Clotilde is a “conduit not only to the past of this history and this community, but […] to a very powerful future. The Africatown community’s desire to uncover physical evidence of their first point of contact with America is tied to their confidence in regaining dominance over the land they claim as their own. Descending movingly marks the discovery of the ship not with dramatic maritime images but with intimate portraits. In a beautiful montage of the film’s subjects shot in tableau against the natural beauty of Africatown, Brown establishes the inextricable bond of the current residents with the land they came to occupy.
The film’s delicately textured tapestry reinforces the story’s rhyme patterns as the original sin of slavery and white supremacy still resonates through Africatown. Based on readings by Zora Neale Hurston Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargoa work published posthumously on a Clotilde passenger, to the family films of the descendants on VHS or portable cameras, the story remains stubbornly the same even if the forms of expression through the media change. The community must tell its own story to preserve the legacy of its ancestors given the blatant disregard with which the City of Mobile viewed their heritage and health.
Above Africatown’s battle for recognition and respect rise the invisible but ever-present Meahers, the once-slavery family that trafficked more than a hundred Africans onto the Clotilde more than half a century after the United States banned the importation of slaves. Current Meahers could not be reached for comment during the production of Descending, but Brown makes the most of their non-participation by turning them into a potent avatar of systemic racism. Their vast land ownership to date and influence in the region perpetuates both inequality of opportunity and outcome. Africatown’s alarming cancer rate shows how past and present environmental racism, as manifested in the heavily polluting industrial zoning that encircles the community, is trying to stifle their future.
The vast tentacles of Clan Meaher continue to wield their power to fix, obscure, or erase the narrative. The family burned and sank the Clotilde to conceal evidence of their criminality in the 19th century, and they misled the community as to the location of the ship in the 20th century. Brown could easily make a separate movie that casually explains how the Meahers, not the state, own the last Civil War battle site where black troops won a decisive victory. Their prolonged surveillance of historic sites further alienates descendants from their history and prevents further questioning of the Meaher legacy.
Descending centers the largely unknown voices of Africatown’s predominantly black population, but begins to incorporate more voices from white city dwellers as it progresses. These interviews expand the frame but do little to deepen the story because their verbose attempts to absolve or excuse centuries of mistreatment amount to nothing more than the repetition of exaggerated talking points. As their presence underscores the emptiness of the rhetoric, Brown insists on the point until it becomes rote static noise catching the attention of the descendants.
Traditional talking-head-style interviews like these permeate the film but don’t overpower its aesthetic and thematic majesty. Cinematographers Zac Manuel and Justin Zewifach rarely capture their interviewees head-on, filming from oblique angles that make subjects appear to be talking with, not just to the public. Brown leaves their observations remarkably raw as Africatown’s Afro-descendant population sorts through their complex web of feelings on camera. At one point, subject Veda Tunstall says, “I don’t think I mean that,” before launching into a slightly sanitized version of her long-standing frustrations with the flippant way people reject calls. descendants to justice. Watching them sift through uncertainty proves more valuable than any self-assured bombast.
These candid conversations present an invitation to join the struggle of Africatown and a challenge to change history for the next chapter. Especially after archaeologists unearthed Clotilde‘s remains, recognition is a given. The conversation about repairs that resurfaces with the wreck becomes real in a new way, and Descending Agilely captures the changing mood of the community as the pieces click into place to demand age-old accountability.
With the Africatown Heritage Museum nearing completion at the time of Descending, Brown’s choice of where to end the film seems somewhat contrived. The community constantly expresses concerns that capitalizing on the ClotildeThe discovery of them will reduce them to props or, worse, pawns for tourism money whose profits go elsewhere. A curatorial lecture as the film’s subjects walk through the grounds of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture feels like superficial satisfaction given how much of the issues explored in the film go unaddressed when the cameras swoop down. stop spinning. The story may reach a crescendo, but it never really ends. Leaving a chronicle of American racism unfinished may be the only possible way to reflect the twists inherent in a nation’s lingering problem.
Director: Daisy Brown Scriptwriter : Margaret Brown, Kern Jackson Distributer: netflix Runtime: 108 minutes Evaluation: PG Year: 2022