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Reckonings: Margaret Brown on Her Netflix Documentary, Descendant

Joycelyn Davis in DescendantJoycelyn Davis

Filmmaker Margaret Brown’s second feature documentary, 2008’s The Order of Myths, about segregated Mardi Gras ceremonies in Mobile, Ala., is structured around a historical trauma with present-day resonance. The ancestors of Black Mardi Gras queen Stefannie Lucas were brought to Alabama on the Clotilda, the last known ship to land on U.S. shores with enslaved Africans (well after the practice had been outlawed); the white queen, Helen Meaher, was descended from the Alabama family that owned the boat. As the community and historians undertook a mission to locate the remains of the Clotilda, which they successfully found in 2019, it was nearly a given that Brown would make a new documentary about the expedition and its aftermath. Descendant—the winner of a special jury award for creative vision at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival—is that film. What’s particularly energizing and rewarding about the picture are the ways in which it’s a nuanced, layered look at the search that deftly illustrates the differing ways this act of recovery resonates among Black and white Alabamans, as well as a work that demonstrates how historical narratives, both in official records and in oral histories, continue to shape current political actions and realities.

There are many documentaries built around the mission of amplifying underheard voices and retrieving histories that have fallen out of, or been distorted by, official records. Through verité footage and interviews with subjects, including Emmett Lewis, whose direct ancestor was an enslaved person on the ship, Brown’s Descendant impressively goes further, making an argument for how these correctives connect the personal to the political to shape consciousness and action. Set largely in Africatown, the Alabama community founded by descendants of those on the Clotilda, Descendant continues the environmental focus of Brown’s 2014 doc, The Great Invisible, about the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster, by showing how the Clotilda‘s legacy includes pollutants spewed from a paper plant—built on land owned by the Meaher family—that harm nearby Black residents. If there is, for the Africatown community, a catharsis following the Clotilda‘s rediscovery, there’s also, as Brown’s film reveals, an understanding of the power this event has created space for.

To interview Brown, we asked her documentary filmmaker colleague and longtime friend Robert Greene, whose most recent film, Procession, about six male survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, explored very differently—through fictional dramatizations—the ways in which narratives can be reclaimed to empowering ends. One of the final projects executive produced by the late Diane Weyermann, chief content officer at Participant, Descendant will be released on October 21 by Netflix on its platform and in theaters. — Scott Macaulay

Filmmaker: The Order of Myths was about the racial divide of the Black and the white Mardi Gras [celebrations] in Mobile, Alabama. That obviously is connected to Descendant. Do you consider Descendant in some ways to be a sequel to The Order of Myths?

Brown: I don’t really like to talk in intros, but for this film, I usually say, “This is a spiritual sequel to The Order of Myths.”

Filmmaker: I love to think about it like that because I see this film as your life’s work, in some ways. Is that how you feel about it? Is this what you were put here to do, make films about this kind of thing in Alabama?

Brown: I mean, I would not want to label myself in that way because I like to stay open and curious about life. “Life’s work” sounds kind of heavy, but I do feel like Descendant was a culmination. Kern Jackson, the folklorist in the film, was an advisor for The Order of Myths, then a cowriter on this. We never stopped talking about things. It was a continuing conversation. We would meet at this coffee shop in Mobile—he has this table where he holds court—and we would talk about the issues swirling around this film. I’m definitely interested in this world—it’s the world where I’m from.

Filmmaker: A key decoder for Descendant is the end of Order of Myths, where you’re talking to your grandfather. Throughout the whole film, we don’t necessarily know your connection to the Meaher family, which plays a big role in Descendant. Then, close to the end, you reveal, “I was connected. My mother was one of the debutantes.” The emotion of that reveal at the end of Order of Myths carries us right into the beginning of Descendant, in some ways.

Brown: My personal connection to this world is revealed, but it was different in Descendant. At certain points, I was looking for a connection very actively because, at least as far as I know, on my father’s side, they did own slaves. My dad is Jewish, and his family owned slaves. And my aunt wrote this memoir, where there was some talk that maybe there was some connection to the Clotilda. We researched that and, to the best that we could ascertain, there is not. But I was like, “Can I tie myself more?” Because I felt like then I might have more ownership of the story because it’s a white person telling the story. At the beginning [of making Descendant], I was looking for something to make it personal in the same way that The Order of Myths was. But it wasn’t there. It was about the Black community and the white community that didn’t speak up.

Filmmaker: That resonates for me as a white Southerner as well, just thinking about the way that you’re connected to and disconnected from the past of the South at all times. I think that’s what I mean: the end of The Order of Myths makes it all about, in a sense, your legacy and how you personally view the segregation in the town.

Brown: Yeah.

Filmmaker: Descendant is such a transformative leap from that point. I think the film is as much about whiteness as it is about being Black in that Africatown community. But I think you had to center the film the way that you did—you centered the community.

Brown: Well, I would argue that it’s not as much about whiteness as The Order of Myths is because white people wouldn’t talk to me, and in the moments they do, I think those [conversations] are very revealing but in a way that was sometimes problematic. I think any white person should think about their place in this—how they’re connected to it—and what their blind spots might be if they’re going to make a movie about a community like this. One of my producers, Essie Chambers, who is African American, helped me creatively, but we also had many deep conversations about my blind spots which helped me with things I just didn’t see as a white person.

Filmmaker: Was thinking that the Meaher family might talk to you part of what inspired you to try to make the film about the Clotilda?

Brown: I mean, I thought they would because they talked to me before.

Filmmaker: Is that a “day one of production” thing? “OK, I know what to do. I’ll talk to the Meaher family”?

Brown: The Order of Myths is centered around the white queen being from the family that brought the Clotilda to the United States on a bet, and us finding out as filmmakers after Mardi Gras that Steffanie Lucas, the Black queen, was descended off that ship. So, the film, as we were making it, became [centered on] this fact. I didn’t know that was going to be part of the story when I started. Helen Meaher is a character, one of the stars of The Order of Myths. She went to Sundance with the film and traveled around to other places, like Europe, with the film. I personally saw her speak to schoolchildren about what it’s like to be from a family that did this, and she talked about it quite eloquently. So, yes, I’d heard from other people in Mobile who were writing me around the time [articles about the Clotilda being rediscovered were coming out] that the Meahers weren’t talking. I was like, “Surely, Helen will talk to me. I know her, and I think she was proud to be part of that film.” And, frankly, she was a very good character in the film. But no one in the family would speak.

Filmmaker: There’s no way Procession would have been made if I hadn’t made these other films that the guys could go watch. Similarly, the people in town [who] you worked with on Descendant, they liked The Order of Myths. They could see your work and the perspective that you were coming from. Is that right?

Brown: Well, it depends on who you ask. Which people in town? Like Emmett Lewis, who’s in the movie, I remember one time he was like, “Hey, can I have some copies [of The Order of Myths] for people who haven’t seen it in Africatown?” So, Cinema Guild made all these copies to pass out in the community. And he and others gave it to friends, and people watched it. They could kind of understand why this blonde girl is here asking all these questions. I mean, some of the people knew me, but some of the younger people didn’t. For [The Order of Myths], a lot of white people talked to me because my grandfather was involved in the mystic societies. But after The Order of Myths, very few white people would talk to me who weren’t academics or very liberal.

Filmmaker: And did any of that give you trepidation diving into Descendant?

Brown: No, because I think that I was curious about this world, and my family is behind me and knows that I have my own moral code. But even if my family was not behind me, I would still be curious about the same things.

Filmmaker: One of the themes of the movie is the power of oral history. You have this amazing footage of Black women standing up and saying, “I’m telling you this story so it doesn’t get lost.” As a documentary filmmaker, how do you feel your work is situated within that question of oral history, preserving stories?

Brown: I don’t think I thought of my work in that sense. This story has these loops in it. It starts back in Africa, people are telling stories; we loop forward, now they’re telling stories in Alabama; we loop forward, now Zora Neale Hurston is recording it; we loop forward, now Kern is in the footsteps of Zora Neale Hurston. It’s nuts. It just keeps getting transferred in this way—sometimes being silenced but never really lost. And you’re right, this determination centered a lot with Black women. And Emmett feeling like he was being born to tell this story, and his dad saying, “Don’t forget—I’m going to tell you this story, you must not forget it” was very powerful to me. So, I don’t think I really thought of my place in that. I thought, “Oh my god, this is a beautiful thing to behold.”

Filmmaker: The way Emmett’s filmed, it’s like these stories are flowing through his body. It’s a very physical thing with him. I know that you approached this film with much more of a sense of being collaborative than maybe anything else you’ve ever done.

Brown: Definitely.

Filmmaker: With him and with others, how did that work?

Brown: I mean, I would be curious for you to ask them how they felt it worked, because for me, I usually am pretty like, “This is how I want to do it.” I don’t usually involve the subjects—I’m not usually like, “Will you guys watch this scene and tell me what you think?” But I did for this film, probably two years in, to some of the main characters. One day, while we were filming, I got some really traumatic news about a friend, and Emmett was there for me. I told him what was going on, and he had had something like that happen to him. There was no way for me not to tell him, because it was so awful. And it was a very expensive day that had a lot riding on it, and a lot of trust with reading from the Zora Neale Hurston material. I’d never had more crew than that, I’d never had that much money spent on a day of shooting and it was still development money. And I was just scared I would mess up, you know? So, I felt like I had to tell him because we had to do it together, because I needed his support, and he was there for me.

Filmmaker: One of the main reasons why I’m in therapy right now is because of Michael in Procession being the first person that I could talk to about some things in my life. So, I think you’re really onto something that the collaborative aspect is not just sharing cuts or asking ideas. It is connecting on a deeper level because you’re making it together. It’s not about abdicating your responsibility as the director, because that’s your job. Emmett doesn’t want you to not be a good director, but he does want input, and he wants to connect with you as a person, right? That’s the deeper sense of collaboration.

Brown: I don’t know if I would phrase it that way because I don’t really know what Emmett wants. But I do know what he tells me he wants, and for my own blind spots, I wanted to know what [my subjects] thought. I didn’t want to portray them in a way that didn’t feel authentic to them as the descendants.

Filmmaker: I think it goes deeper, too, like the use of Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston. [Written beginning
in the late ’20s but unpublished until 2018, Hurston’s book tells the story of Cudjoe Lewis, brought to the United States on the Clotilda.]

Brown: That was the main thing I was collaborating [with the subjects] on. I wanted to do that part in collaboration because they’re acting as actors. It’s not a verité scene at all. So, with Joycelyn reading the part about Timothy Meaher and then layering that over some of the pollution in Africatown, connecting the environmental racism to something that happened 160 years ago, we talked about that. That’s some of the most meaningful work on the film—explaining why I want to do something, not in terms of what the shot is but the larger frame, the context for what we’re doing here. It’s not just asking someone to read a part.

Filmmaker: I would describe the film as having this orchestral structure. The way the scenes play out is like waves of music. Talk about that decision as the director and who you were working with in your editing to make that possible.

Brown: I love my editors, Geoff Richman and Mike Bloch. Geoff was the main editor on Order of Myths, along with Michael Taylor and myself. Mike Bloch is also a musician. He was in Here We Go Magic, and he’s currently in The War On Drugs. He plays guitar, sometimes in live shows, but often he does the guitar parts on the albums. And I come from a musical family; that’s something that just is in me, and he speaks that language. Geoff edited in the beginning, and then we switched to Mike, mainly that’s how it went. And Geoff’s temp score was so good that it was really hard to get away from it. But I also had these crazy great composers that I worked with: Ray Angry, who’s in The Roots, and Rhiannon Giddens. They both did part of the score. Rhiannon was supported by this man named Dirk Powell. It was an honor to witness. Also, I got to go into the studio with Ray. We had demoed every track, but then we also got to change it live. It was incredibly stressful because the budget was not gigantic, but it was also so fun because we had already finished, pretty much locked picture. To write the score live—like, my favorite piece is something we totally rewrote in the studio. I watched my dad do that, but I’d never had that experience myself. They let me into their creative process in this really generous way, and I feel very grateful for that.

Filmmaker: I think this is a hallmark of your work in general, the musicality of your films. I feel like it reaches its peak here, probably because of the process that you’re describing—the editor being a musician, the musicians who are actually doing the score being a big part of the process. Even the shots themselves, there’s a musical quality to them. I’m thinking specifically of that drone shot that reveals where Africatown is situated next to those toxic power plants.

Brown: That is Nick Ramey, this sick drone operator. I love him. He works a lot with Justin [Zweifach] and Zac [Manuel], my DPs. We had a team of crazy creative people. It felt like a traveling circus. It’s so interesting you picked that shot out. Lewis Quarters is surrounded by Canfor, this timber-processing plant. On one side, a railroad goes right by. Everywhere else is Canfor. [There’s this] community that’s very important to American history in the middle of a timber plant. I remember driving down an unpaved road, me and two other people, and we get out of the car, and we all started crying. My thought was, “How do I communicate what this feels like, to be here with these smells? I can see it, I can smell it, and I can feel it. But how do I get this feeling?” So, for years, Justin and Zac and I were trying to get that shot. We tried so many different iterations, and that was the final shot, where I’m like, “Oh, this communicates the feeling.” When it came back in the dailies, we were like, “There it is. That’ll be in the film.”

Filmmaker: It literally is a shot that says “environmental racism” in the image itself, which is a difficult concept to get across, and you get it across in one image. The other thing that you’re really good at in your films is going into meetings. You have a Frederick Wiseman level of expertise at getting layers of meaning and really being able to capture the tensions in the room. I’m of course thinking about the reveal in the film of the painting. One guy says, “Here’s this beautiful painting.” And the other white guy, who’s smarter, says, “Well, I wouldn’t use the word ‘beautiful.’” You could just see from the reaction of the Black descendants in the room how horrified and traumatized they are. You’re capturing a moment of idiot re-traumatization by white people on Black people in the room.

Brown: I remember when that happened, I called [executive producer] Diane Weyermann when we left and said, “We just got the whole film in one scene.” I remember the whole time we were shooting, I was like, “I have to keep a blank face. Don’t respond to anything that’s going on”—because it was so Order of Myths level. The camera sees one thing, and the people think that they’re saying another thing. The pain in the room was hard to witness, but I was really glad we were there with the camera because I did think that what happened in that moment really captured something that happens, I think, to Black Americans all the time.

Filmmaker: That is the most powerful thing I sense in your work, the camera seeing something that isn’t apparent to everybody in the room. That is Order of Myths, 100 percent, but I think Descendant, because the film is so on the side of the community, doesn’t have to overuse that [device]. Most films would hold the Clotilda as a reveal, and use that to be like a “we discovered the crime” thing. You then spend 45 minutes or more with the people in town, processing.

Brown: Yeah, because it’s not about that. Joycelyn says it in the film: She’s like, “It’s not about the ship. I don’t care about the ship. I care about the community.” From the get-go, to me, whether or not they found the Clotilda didn’t matter. I knew the Clotilda was there, the community knows the Clotilda is there. Parts of white Alabama might not want to acknowledge the Clotilda was there, but they all know. You do see the difference finding the ship makes when it was found, because forces rally around them. It can become a tourist situation that perhaps they can have ownership of. Perhaps they can have ownership in the telling of their story more than they have in the past. But that is a struggle that’s still happening right now, and that’s something the film addresses. The city’s at this moment where they could swoop in and take over and make money off this tourism moment for themselves. Or, they could let the descendants and community take the lead. That’s where the film ends. Like, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know how successful this struggle will be in this moment, you know?

Filmmaker: How will the community be able to continue to access the film and the issues it discusses?

Brown: We’re finishing a website right now that directs people to how they can directly support all these activist organizations in the community. This is an incredibly activist community. They’re really proud, and they’re really active with environmental racism, with the passing down of the story, with community organizations. It was very inspiring to walk into and see all these people, many of whom are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, going to meetings every day and having this pride in their community, you know? So, we will have ways at descendantfilm.com of connecting people to visit, support, learn more. We’re building that right now.

Filmmaker: I love that you bring up a website because that distinction between social issue film and art film was always false. It was always bullshit. Making an impact in the community actually has, weirdly, gotten a bad name in some ways. But it’s the reason why we do certain films. The fact is, Descendant premiered at Sundance, won an award. You go to Netflix. The Obamas—their production company, Higher Ground—get involved. There is real change and impact happening because you made the film.

Brown: Well, one thing that happened that’s super interesting is that Canfor is moving a month and a half before the movie comes out. Canfor is the company that surrounds Lewis Quarters. People in the community call it Gulf Lumber, they don’t even call it Canfor because that’s fairly new. It’s always been called Gulf Lumber. So, yeah, they quietly announced they’re moving out of Africatown.

Filmmaker: That’s fantastic.

Brown: Coincidence? Who knows? But I think I know. That’s a very palpable thing that’s happening. There’s a few other things that are happening that I can’t really say yet, but they’re very exciting. And it’s exciting to see actual change happening, like people watching the movie and maybe deciding to sell their stock of International Paper and donate the money to the community.
And there’[re] a lot of Africatowns, you know? This is just the one that happened to be where the slave ship was discovered. There’[re] a lot of slave ships that we don’t want to discover. There are a lot of slave ships that were scuttled and burned. This is the only one that’s ever been found. Why is this the only one that’s ever been found? The question is, do we want to find them?

Filmmaker: That’s a great question. And I’ll leave it at this: I love the complexity of how you feel about Mobile, how much love you have for the place and how much fear and anxiety you have about the place, and how much that’s been something you probably wrestle with your whole life.

Brown: When I was growing up, I wanted to get as far away as I could to the most liberal place I could find, but then I’m always drawn back there because I do love it. I love my family. I want it to be better. A character who didn’t end up in the film said to me very early on, “The entire South needs therapy.” Maybe this film is part of that therapy, for us to have a conversation about things that are really difficult to talk about.

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