In Margaret Brown’s documentary “Descendant,” a man named Anderson Flen walks through the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, and wonders aloud about the people who walked there before him, people who had less freedom and fewer opportunities. He’s from Africatown, a freed Black settlement on the Gulf Coast, founded by people who were brought over on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to reach the United States. Flen, who is seventy-two, is working with community members and preservationists to transform Africatown into a tourist destination that honors the legacy of enslaved Black people. The purpose of his trip to Montgomery is to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, widely known as the national lynching memorial, which was opened in 2018 by the civil-rights lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson and is an important reference point for Africatown’s efforts.
The imposing memorial features hundreds of hanging steel rectangles, representing the more than four thousand African Americans who were lynched during the Jim Crow era. (The count is based on research done by the Equal Justice Initiative.) After touring the six-acre site, Flen seems to lose the spring in his step. He looks away from the camera and sighs. He says, “The real test a lot of times is not in coming. It’s what do you do when you leave? . . . Most of the people who come here, I’m sure, have been blessed beyond imagination. This is just a blip in their lives, a few seconds.” He worries that the memorial will become “another form of entertainment.”
Preservationists and historians and institutional leaders have seized on the surge of racial uproar in recent years by creating dozens of museum exhibits, monuments, and memorials that grapple with racism in the U.S. The opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in 2016, helped lead this renaissance. Yet, as Flen senses in Montgomery, key questions remain unanswered: What is the best way to memorialize the history of racial violence? Can focussing on the past change our present? And what is owed specifically to the families of those who endured these crimes against humanity? Those questions are central to “Descendant,” which débuted at Sundance in January. It was acquired by Netflix and Higher Ground, the Obamas’ production company, and will be released in October after showing at the New York Film Festival.
Brown, in her early fifties, grew up white in Mobile, Alabama, whose center is three miles from Africatown. She is the daughter of a reluctant débutante mother and a Jewish songwriter father. A sensitive child, she was frightened when her father pointed out houses owned by K.K.K. members, warning her to be careful and know her place as a Jew. But she had blue eyes and told me that she was “invisibly Jewish.” Her 2008 documentary, “The Order of Myths,” examined the fraught racial and class dynamics of Mardi Gras in Mobile. Her subsequent films focussed on the devastating effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill on working-class Gulf Coast communities, as well as the voter-suppression efforts directed at rural African Americans in Alabama’s Black Belt. While shooting the Mardi Gras film, she was exposed more deeply to the story of the Clotilda and the origins of Africatown—she didn’t remember learning it in school. A decade later, Brown set out to tell this story from the perspectives of descendants from both Black and white sides, but, when she approached the family of the white man who’d paid for the voyage, they refused to speak to her.