Higher Ground, the production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama, has established an enviable track record with Oscar voters, earning a Best Documentary Feature nomination last year with Crip Camp, and a win in 2020 for American Factory. It’s back in the Oscar race this year with Descendant, a Netflix documentary directed by Margaret Brown.
The award-winning film centers on the descendants of the Clotilda, the last slave ship known to have entered the U.S., which sailed into Mobile Bay, Alabama on the eve of the Civil War.
“The Obamas’ and the Netflix platform is just crucial because… these kinds of histories are being obscured and obfuscated and denied,” Brown said during an appearance at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary event. “And to have that kind of support is in defiance to those who would not like these stories to be told.”
In part, the documentary explores efforts to locate the vestiges of the Clotilda, which was sunk immediately after discharging its human cargo on a stretch of the Mobile River, around 1860. After a search of more than 150 years, the vessel was finally located alongside land owned by the Maeher family, descendants of the man who had bankrolled the illegal expedition to import slaves (the practice had been outlawed in 1808).
“I never really thought when I was making the film that it was important that the ship be found,” said Brown, a native of Mobile. “But then when they did find the ship and everything that came after that, I was very glad they did because as Kamau [Sadiki, diver and slave shipwreck investigator] says in the movie, it’s this tangible piece of evidence. It’s a very important artifact, and it’s also an emotional artifact. And I think that opened up the story in all these ways that I was just not prepared for.”
The primary focus of Descendant, in many respects, is the fate of Africatown — the neighborhood in North Mobile founded by Clotilda survivors — and those who trace their lineage to those survivors. The historic community has been bisected by a freeway and is penned in by heavy industry located on land still owned by the Maeher family. Toxins spew into the air, a suspected cause of high rates of cancer and other diseases among residents of the area. There is the strong feeling that hereditary white power still negatively impacts the lives of Black people in Africatown.
“When you drive into Africatown the sense of where you are is very palpable. It’s sort of a small community and it’s very residential. There’s smells of the industry that surrounds,” Brown said. “It’s very loud. There’s lots of noise pollution. We don’t know what’s in the soil. For five years when I was making the film, I was thinking about how do I translate what this feels like to be here. … When you’re in the graveyard, which is a historic place … there’s an asphalt plant next door that gives you a headache if you’re there at certain points of the day when it’s super-hot from the fumes. So, it was really about translating that in a palpable and emotional way.”
Check back Wednesday for the panel video.