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What's next following the release of Clotilda slave ship film...

Guy Busby

The story of the last people brought to America as slaves and their descendants is now available to movie viewers around the world. The slave ship known as the Clotilda brought kidnapped Africans to the Mobile area in 1860, just before the start of the U.S. Civil War. APR Gulf Coast Correspondent Guy Busby has more on the new film titled “Descendant,” and what happens next.

Guy Busby

For 160 years, the story of the slave ship Clotilda was little known outside of Africatown. That’s a community created by the descendants captured by slave traders and taken to Mobile. Now, a movie is telling their story. The film Descendant is now available on Netflix. Crowds lined up around the block to see the premiere at Mobile’s Saenger Theater. Drummers played as moviegoers waited to enter the venue.

“Tonight is all about celebrating the descendants of the Clotilda shipmates and their story,’ said Ramsey Sprague is president of Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition. He’s also chair of Mobile NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee.

“It's about recognizing that the community today has a lot of needs,” said Sprague. “As a world heritage site, it's necessary that we protect it permanently with zoning changes that would prevent the current industry from expanding exponentially. In the future.”

Sprague says the movie brings to light a story that was hidden for generations. The story of the Clotilda was largely unknown until burned wreckage of the double masted schooner was discovered in the Mobile River.

“What the film does is give space, gives voice, gives time, attention and a beautiful gaze to people who are carrying forth an oral tradition that had been so harshly oppressed and suppressed,” he said.

He says the response to the film and the attention it’s bringing to Africatown has been very positive.

Guy Busby

“Regardless of what everyone is saying and it's all been amazing, the community deserves focused attention, focused resourcing and we hope that everyone will join in the chorus that we're hearing in other reviews, rave reviews, about the film. We feel it needs to be celebrated as widely as possible,” Sprague observed.

“I am so excited for Mobile,” said Africatown resident Joycelyn Davis is a descendant of Clotilda captives. She appears in the film.

“I envisioned that the Africatown, Clotilda story would be just as big as Mardi Gras, so tonight looks like Mardi Gras to me, the atmosphere, I have chills. This is all Mardi Gras,” she said.

Davis says her family and neighbors preserved the story that few others paid attention to.

“I never could understand why people thought it was a myth because those enslaved Africans were documented. The Clotilda was built in 1855, so it was on the national register. I never could understand the myth,” she insists.

While the story of the Clotilda, the last ship to bring slaves to the United States has drawn worldwide attention, Davis says the real story is about the people it brought over and the generations that followed.

“But Descendant is what it's all about. It's not about the Clotilda because I'm quoted saying it's not about the ship, but it's about the people,” Davis points out. “So, I'm glad that it's titled Descendant because that's who it's all about, the descendants.”

“It's not just a narrative of the immigration, the illegal enslavement,” said Kern Jackson director of the African-American studies program at the University of South Alabama.


“It's also about forming coalitions within a democracy and making things work out so that you can function in a capitalist society and make ends meet and create families and progeny and future,” said Jackson. “So, I think that's one of the things that really comes across. That these folks in this community represent a lot of us who don't have those direct connections to the African continent.”

Jackson also co-produced and helped write the film that was directed by Mobile native Margaret Brown. He says that since its release, the movie has affected many who have seen it.

“I feel like what the film already has done in its short release on Netflix and here in Mobile, the feedback I'm getting from audiences is questions of what truths are and what justice looks like and, I think, more importantly, to be part of an ongoing sort of conversation of what's required to move forward with some of the topics raised by the film,” he said.

Jackson says the film celebrates the generations who survived after the Clotilda and kept the story alive.

“This film is an active contemplation on the past. The past and the truth is always present. I love this film because I'm a folklorist and it's about the power of storytelling and the importance of uncovering history so that collective memory can be shaped going into the future,” Jackson said. “It helps people to contribute to other folks' narratives of perseverance. Right? Particularly with African American neighbors and African-American communities in Mobile County that, quite frankly, often need to regain ownership of their narratives and move forward on the journey of racial reconciliation and justice.”

Guy Busby

Producers of the film are also working to help connect Africatown community members with others who want to help their effort to tell that story. A new museum to meant to commemorate the voyage of the Clotilda and its enslaved passengers. Kern Jackson says the internet is another way filmmakers are reaching out.

“What they did is a website that lists the community entities that if people wanted to partner with. What they have done and what is part of their mission as a company is to connect people with partners nationally for what they're trying to accomplish,” Jackson noted. “The film comes out. It's seen by someone someplace and it's like 'oh, how can I help?”

During the years that filmmakers were working on the movie they tried to talk to the descendants of Timothy Maeher. He’s the man who financed the slave ship expedition. Since Descendants came out, some members of the Meaher family have made contact with some of the descendants of the Clotilda captives. Jackson says he hopes the movie will help some people reconcile over time.

“Like most things, Mobile, it's always a question of degree,” he said. “I think it's important for people to get out ahead of things that can be potentially negative or whatever and so I think that's good, but I know that as filmmakers, we reached out to them constantly over several years and... you know.”

“I'd rather not comment on that. We've talked,” said Darron Patterson is a former president of the Clotilda Descendants Association. He met with some Meaher descendants, but it’s too early to talk about the discussions.

“It was nothing of substance. It was just who we are as a people,”

Patterson says the main point of the movie is to show how many people, not just the Clotilda descendants, have been treated in America over the generations.

“It's all good,” Patterson said. “It shines a huge spotlight on Mobile and on the rest of the country about what's wrong with America and the most important thing now is what happens next. That's the most important thing. What happens next?”

Documenting that struggle is one of the main goals of Descendant. Again, Kern Jackson.

“It's the journey. The journey is the thing, documenting the journey and in this particular case trying to support a journey that leads to, even this many years later, a type of reconciliation and justice,” Jackson said.

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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