AUP. Ep. 41: Descendent

AUP EP#41 TRANSCRIPT

Transcribed: Cameron Blackwell

Completed: 2/18/22

​​Cortney Wills: [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Acting Up the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills, Entertainment director at theGrio. And this week we’re diving in to Descendant. Today we are diving into Descendant, a documentary I had the privilege to screen at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received the U.S. documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision. It has since been acquired by the Obama’s Higher Ground Productions and will be released on Netflix at a later date, and that is very good news because this is a story everyone needs to know about. So the official synopsis says Descendant follows members of Africa Town, a small community in Alabama, as they share their personal stories and community history as descendants of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to illegally transport human beings as cargo from Africa to America. The ship’s existence, a centuries old open secret, is confirmed by a team of marine archeologists. The film explores implications of the Clotilda discovery for the descendants who grapple with their heritage while claiming the power to shape their own destinies. There is so much to unpack in this film, directed by Margaret Brown, who is one of my guests today on Acting Up first, the Earth shattering discovery of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in the United States from Africa in 1860. It arrived roughly 40 years after slave trading was outlawed and became punishable by death. So the people who ordered it had every reason to sink it in the river, which they did. And it’s actually not a secret who ordered this ship, it was the Mayor family. They ordered the ship. They filled it with human cargo, and when it arrived, they set it on fire and sunk it, then spent years kind of lying about its whereabouts. The Africans who walked off of that ship established a community known as Africa Town and their descendants have preserved their history, with the facts being relegated to urban legend and rumors about the ship and its whereabouts. They’ve been swirling for decades. One of the ship’s survivors, Cujo Lewis, shared his life story with a prolific writer and historian, Zora Neale Hurston, back in 1928. She recorded his story in his native tongue and refused to let her publisher change the language, which left it unpublished until 2018, when it was finally released as Barracoon. Descendant follows several of Cujo’s direct descendants who, together with other relatives of survivors of the Clotilda, have cultivated lives in Africa Town that have been heavily influenced by their ancestors customs, language, and religion. But the area has been plagued by pollution from industries built around it, leaving lots of people sick with cancer and other ailments that seem to be prompted by the environment. And what’s so crazy is that Mayor family owns a lot of those companies and industries and factories that are polluting the land that these people ended up on. So many years passed with this community of people insisting that they were indeed the direct descendant of the captives on the Clotilda. And in 2018, the ship was finally discovered. Even more astounding than the discovery itself is the fact that the ship was preserved because it had been sitting in mud for so long, meaning that this wreckage contained a lot more evidence and artifacts that can tell us so much about what happened on it. Because of the way that it was preserved, DNA tracing is possible. Renderings of the ship and its cargo have been created, and they’re shown in this film and are so deeply rattling. Seeing the naked bodies of the human cargo piled up on top of each other under the ship is jarring enough. And then we see the direct descendants of those people seeing those images for the first time, and it’s utterly gut wrenching. The Mayor family still looms large in the Mobile Alabama area, and ever since the Clotilda was actually found, they seem to have stopped talking about it. The community is currently battling for so much, from reparations to lawsuits over the health issues, the environmental racism at play, as well as the struggle over who controls the narrative about this discovery. It’s all still ongoing, and all of these things are wrapped up in this mind blowing project. Tariq ‘Black Thought’ Trotter and Amir ‘Questlove’ Thompson are among the executive producers on this film, and it’s especially personal to Questlove, who learned that he was a direct descendant of survivors from the Clotilda. Descendant is not Margaret Brown’s first film on the subject. Her other work, The Order of Myths, is actually what prompted her to eventually follow up with Descendants. She also directed Be Here to Love Me! Townes Van Zandt and The Great Invisible. When Margaret agreed to be a guest on Acting Up, I was so pleased because I had so many questions for her, not only about how she managed to tell such an important story with so many pieces, but also how she reconciled her position as a white woman tackling this precious piece of history. With so much racism at the root of it. Hi, Margaret. Oh my gosh, what a beautiful film you’ve created here with Descendant. [00:05:26][323.1]

Margaret Brown: [00:05:27] Thank you. It was a team effort in front of the camera and behind the camera. It was- director is a weird word for this one. [00:05:35][7.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:05:35] There is so much to dove into with this documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Margaret, oh my god. Like how- how did this story even come to you and how did you begin to try to tackle it? [00:05:48][13.4]

Margaret Brown: [00:05:49] Well, actually, it started 15 years ago. I made another film called The Order of Myths that was about segregated Mardi Gras in Mobile and at a certain point in the filmmaking after Mardi Gras, I had heard before I made the film, people talked about it almost like a rumor or gossip or something. I heard like, Oh, the Mayor fam- the Queen that year Hellen Mayor who’s a member of the Mayor family and people will be like, Oh, her family brought the slave ship the Clotilda to Mobile. But this is like nothing I had learned about in history books or like, I didn’t really know that story. I was like, Oh, OK. And then after Mardi Gras was over, you know, after I’d followed Helen’s journey, some other people who were debutantes in the white Mardi Gras court and then Stephanie Lucas and Joseph Roberson’s journey, who were the king and queen for the Black Mardi Gras court I was filming, I was doing sound and the cinematographer was shooting. We were filming with Stephanie and her grandparents because their grandparents had kind of raised her and, Stephanie’s grandfather says, just casually mentions, Oh, on camera, my family is descended off that ship, the Mayor ship. And I was just like, Excuse me what? And then Stephanie goes, My people are from her people show. And I looked at the cinematographer and he looked at me and we didn’t say anything at the time. We just sort of I could see he knew what I knew, which is like, Oh my God, like these two Mardi Gras queens are connected from the Clotilda. That was in 2007. Then the film changed. The film became around the Clotilda, so it became it became very focused around the Clotilda. So Kern Jackson, who was in this film, he worked with me on that film. He was the historical advisor, and we would sit in this coffee shop in Mobil and just talking about this for hours. And then about four years ago, when Ben Raines announced that he- this isn’t really in the film, but Ben Raines, who ended up finding the ship he announced like two years before that, that that he felt he thought he found the ship. But it turned out not to be the ship that the real ship was found about a year later. So around 2018 or maybe 2017, the details are hazy. Like when that happened, I started getting emails from people and messages on my social media saying, Hey, like, you know, this is all being reported. This might be the Clotilda, but that’s actually not the story. There’s a more interesting story should come back and film, you know? And I was like, never. I mean, usually like when you make a film, you don’t go make another one. So I didn’t think that was not the plan, you know? But that’s the thing about documentaries. You never know what’s going to happen. So Louis Black, who is one of the associate producers in the film, he was like, You have to go like, you have to go back like, this is so sort of wild. And so he he wrote me a check, like in a restaurant in L.A. it was like go. And so I got on a plane and went, and that’s sort of how the film’s started. [00:08:39][169.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:08:39] That is incredible. [00:08:40][0.5]

Margaret Brown: [00:08:41] It was a very auspicious beginning. Yes. [00:08:42][1.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:08:43] This is such a loaded story. I mean, even just like recounting it so casually to you a minute ago, it sounded like a drama like a nighttime soap, you know, like a real, holy moly. There’s like a lot going on in like a big, powerful bad family in like Erin Brockovich style community, the pollution from industry being put on this land and people getting sick in large numbers who live there like there is so much going on here. [00:09:14][30.6]

Margaret Brown: [00:09:15] There’s a lot going on. I would say that I know the Mayor of family has done things that are bad, but I would also say like slavery is not just their problem like this is something that is, you know, it’s the South’s problem, it’s the country’s problem. It’s a global problem. And I believe it’s Ramsay’s says in the movie, when this happens, if they don’t speak, they’re going to be the avatar of silent slave holders. And like, I frankly don’t think that like good and evil is that clear cut like Helen Mayor was in the Order of Myths and she traveled around with the film. And I don’t think she’s a bad person. I think her family’s telling her not to talk. But I do think that like this, this legacy of silence is really unhealthy and it’s the problem of the South. You know, it’s like, I mean, it’s it’s it’s for white people to figure out, you know? And I think that like, there’s a lot of reckoning to go around I wanted in the film. I don’t want it all focused on the Mayor of family. There’s a lot of us white people that need to interrogate ourselves. You know what I mean, it’s not it’s not just the Mayors. [00:10:21][66.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:10:22] Well how did she feel about you doing this? Because I do think that the film, I don’t think it was an indictment in any stretch of that family or, you know, the existing family now. But having known her and worked with her, like, did it- did you feel a little responsibility to be very. [00:10:37][15.2]

Margaret Brown: [00:10:38] I don’t think- I felt I felt a responsibility to what I perceive as the truth. And I asked Helen if she would talk to me. She didn’t answer. She wrote me back about other things, but not that. And, you know, so I don’t know what she’s thinking, and I would never try to speak for her. But it does make me sad that they don’t speak, and I hope when people watch the movie, they think about the toll of silence. You know it. It can’t be healthy. Does that make sense? I don’t know. [00:11:07][28.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:11:08] No, it’s complicated. I literally said to my husband, we watch this together over the weekend, and I said to him, Damn, like, what about the existing Mayor family? Like, you know, the 40 year old who, like many extremely wealthy and old white families, heads of Fortune’s Masters of of Business and Wall Street did come from family money that benefited from slavery. Like what if you were just woke up in 2022 and someone was like, Yo, your family did this? And like all you did, actually truly was be born? That’s a real thing, too. So like I said, I don’t think the film is an indictment of this family as much as, you know, a system and of a legacy and one that doesn’t, I think, have a clear answer at all. It’s very messy, like this is the only one this doesn’t have. This is not a trend like this. There’s not a bunch of instances. [00:12:07][58.6]

Margaret Brown: [00:12:09] Environmental racism in Black communities with industrial- there is that trend. But you know, I’ve made a few other films that dealt with, you know, environmental racism, and it’s not an accident. I mean, it’s a kind of like willful forgetting, you know, or that’s a nice way to say it. But like, it’s yeah, I think it’s really complicated and I’m not trying to be an apologist for that family. I’m just trying to be honest about like, like you explained it better than I could like. What do you do when you wake up and like you’re only sin is being born into a certain family and people in your family who you love have really strong opinions like in maybe you don’t agree with them? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what’s going on, but you know, yeah, [00:12:49][40.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:12:50] yeah, it’s a lot [00:12:51][0.7]

Margaret Brown: [00:12:51] But I know if it was my family, I would have made different decisions. But like, who knows? You can’t. You can’t know something until you walk into people’s shoes, but it’s hard to sort of give them the benefit of the doubt for certain decisions. But you know, it’s also hard to blame someone for what family they were born into. It’s very complicated. [00:13:08][17.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:13:09] So the people who walked off of this boat and were not slaves, what did they do? [00:13:15][6.0]

Margaret Brown: [00:13:15] First of all, the movie is about world history, and from what I can gather from records and historians is that some of them were sent to different plantations for- there– I mean, it’s hard because their stories passed down in families in Africa Town that’s there that say that no one was ever enslaved. So that could possibly be true. I think there’s records that say that some people were enslaved. So, you know, again, like, but who? Who writes the history. So it’s like, I think one thing this film I hope to interrogate is like, why people write down what when. Like who has the power to create the narrative? And like, if you think about like people, I’m probably murdering this statistic and I need to get it right before I do more press. But I know that like I think one out of seven people was literate back then, those are probably white men. So like, who was writing history, you know? So you start to know this stuff is sort of changes your definition of like well what is history. [00:14:19][63.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:14:20] That is such a good point? And what is history? Absolutely. And having a piece of this ship, though, I mean, that’s tangible. They were saying they might be able to do like DNA tracing even. Yeah. To really define the lineage, which is mind blowing. But you said something that I want to come back to you and that is, yeah, like who controls the narrative and who writes it down and who documents it? And I wonder for you as a white woman coming to this huge, hugely important piece of Black history, like what goes into that? [00:14:51][31.1]

Margaret Brown: [00:14:52] I mean, it’s like for me, if I’m going to make it about myself for a second, this is like the question that plagued me once I realize, like the Mayor family wasn’t going to talk to me and a lot of white people in Mobile weren’t going to talk to me because they were afraid to speak. Then I was like, Oh my God, am I really a white person making a movie about Black people owning their story? Like, what the fuck? You know, I mean, it was just like, This is not a position I want to be in. I don’t know if I should. Be in this position, like at that point, it was kind of like pretty far down the road where I’m already making the movie, it’s already funded. I had a lot of hubris and thought because Helen was in my other movie that she would probably talk to me if no one else in that family talked to me since we traveled with the movie, went to Sundance, went to other places. She was vocal about being from a family that brought the last slave ship to America. She did not shy away from that. So I was very suprised- I thought, Oh, well, I can. Surely she’ll talk to me like, we did this together already. But you know what? There’s something about proof when they bring the ship up. People don’t talk. It changes the narrative. This tangible proof. I mean, this is what I’m guessing. The tangible proof changed her willingness to speak. [00:16:00][68.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:16:01] Yeah, that’s so deep. But you know what you said, too, like you thought and you seemed to, you had every reason to believe you probably had a unique ability to tell this story because of your access to her and your and your previous work. And when that’s not the case, even though it might feel like, especially when you must have made this movie like the social climate and the, you know, we want to tell our own stories. Yeah, the height of all of that had to be daunting, but like what would be the alternative? To not make? to not use that, check that you in, you know, for whatever merit and reason and your ability to get a check and go make an important movie like that’s and that’s a an amazing ability. And so why not make it and make it honestly the way that you did and like, make this beautiful thing that I think is just the beginning obviously, this will not likely be the last project based on this. There’s so much more to uncover and to continue with. But I think that there is something to be said for you doing it, and I’m glad that you did. [00:17:08][67.0]

Margaret Brown: [00:17:09] Well, thank you for saying that. I think like the reasons I have the ability to make it are because of privilege. And, you know, I went to Brown University like I grew up in a family with money. You know, you have to I don’t know. I mean, like I am wondering, I mean, the answer is clear that like, I have this opportunity. I mean, obviously, I’ve worked really hard to get where I am. I’m not taking away from that. I know how hard I work. But there’s another part of it, which is just like white privilege and very, you know, just like own all of it, I don’t know, I just like, I think about all of it. So, it was hard. It was it was a lot of internal struggle. But again, like the movie’s not about me and I want it like, this is really important to me. It’s my hometown. It’s something that I do think white people have to reckon with. And so if I can be a part of that, then great, you know, I’m going to be part of that conversation. [00:17:57][48.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:17:58] I love that, and I’m so glad that you’re part of this conversation. I could talk to you about for so much longer, but I have to let you go. So my final question is, you know, when I see really strong documentaries like this that plant so many seeds in my own mind, I know that there must be so much more that didn’t make it in so much left on the cutting room floor. So if there’s one thing, one area that you either scratch the surface of or didn’t even get to like, you know, if you had one more hour, what what would have made it in there? [00:18:27][28.8]

Margaret Brown: [00:18:28] We really wanted to take a trip as a group to Benin, but then the pandemic happened because you know how Emmett talks about Cujo always wanted to go back home. Zora Neale Hurston wrote it about that. I like, you know, Vito’s very curious about where she’s from. All of them are so curious. But then when the pandemic happened, it’s clear that that trip is not going to happen. So that was very difficult. Maybe that’s a sequel, I don’t know. But that desire from that community has not gone away. [00:18:57][29.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:18:57] That would be so amazing to see. Margaret, thanks so much for your time today and your candor. It’s rare that I get to hear that perspective, and I think that it’s really important and valuable, and I think that this documentary stands to just make such an impact on so many of us. So thank you for it. [00:19:18][20.8]

Margaret Brown: [00:19:18] You’re welcome and thank you for talking deeply to me. Appreciate it. [00:19:22][3.3]

Cortney Wills: [00:19:22] Absolutely. You take care. I’ll also speak to Kern Jackson, who served as a historical consultant on Descendent about the implications a discovery like this could have for generations to come. Hi, Kern. Thank you so much for joining me today to talk about this incredible documentary called Descendent that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. That just has affected me so deeply. I think it’s so important. (Wow. OK, OK.) I think it’s so important, like what it means and what it could mean, and just this tangible like thing that is probably like so close, like one of the most close, untouched like connections is just overwhelming. [00:20:11][49.5]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:20:13] The more we talk about it with other folks, cause, you know, we’ve been talking among ourselves for so long. The more we talk about it to other folks, the more I feel like folks in Africa Town are standard instead of a bunch of whole people, you know, a whole bunch of other folk, [00:20:28][15.3]

Cortney Wills: [00:20:29] All of that for sure. I actually just finished speaking to Margaret about this film, and we touched on, I think, some really important things about her approach to this. But what I really wanted to talk to you about is the history of this. I mean, talk about talk about Black history. This is so insane, and I feel like I have so many questions for you, including what can a physical thing, a discovery like this, this ship the wreckage of what is probably the last slave ship to come over from Africa has been discovered. And what can that do for us? Like, what can it really show us? [00:21:09][39.7]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:21:10] I mean, so many things, not the least of which is sort of the the arrogance of power. You know, this is like the folks in Africa Town say throughout the whole thing, we knew where was I? Ben Raines did not discover this ship. People in Africa Town already knew where it was and had been functioning with the power of that knowledge and the implications of what it has to sort of trouble the waters to borrow another phrase or, you know, the city fathers and mothers and Chamber of Commerce, this sort of thing. What it can do, though, when they raise it up is like that. Gary Lombard says, Oh my God, when we started doing DNA trace and we find out that, you know, it ain’t just the Black people related to the Clotilda. With the amount of 19th century miscegenation land around this Gulf Coast town, we didn’t just get a Creole population out of the air. And so, you know, these arbitrary divisions of community like where you go at 11 o’clock, and where I go at 11 o’clock and they’re going to dissapate when we find out we cousins. [00:22:15][64.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:22:16] Wow, that is so wild. That is so why there’s so much about this documentary that is really, really kind of wild. Like, it seems like it could be a major drama. I told Margaret, like I could imagine a whole mini series about all of the elements of this thing. But one thing that I thought was so, so, so fascinating is that my favorite author, Zora Neale Hurston, got something else almost as unfathomable as the ship itself, which is this firsthand in his native tongue account of his life story from someone who walked off of that ship like recorded or, you know, from conversations conducted when like, 1926, I think, or ’28 maybe and was just published in 2018? [00:23:03][47.3]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:23:06] No, I mean, Hurston had to have got her lead from somewhere, right? So the the tip she received that encouraged her to come over here. I think she came over here from New Orleans when she was down in New Orleans. The tip this you see, along with the ethnographic investigation she was already conducting, she was looking for voodoo people and she was trying to sort through what are the implications of this spirituality? What are the what do these folks have it in more concrete ways. You know, what are they practicing? I mean, she’s writing letters to Langston Hughes saying, You know, they’re supposed to be working on Newbold, the play, and she’s writing letters to him saying, boy guess what I found? Right? And they had a really- not a tumultuous relationship. They had a relationship that was little, you know, like big sister, little brother type thing. She was she would tell them what she really thought. And just to read some of those letters and stuff about, you know, sleeping on Cujo’s couch or whatever in his space and having the good sense to wait out the the richness of the interaction because because you look at Barracoon, who she had to jump through some hoops to get that narative, he didn’t just give it to her. She had to prove herself worthy to get to a place where he felt comfortable with her being present when he was crying. [00:24:30][84.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:24:32] You just like took me back to the part of the documentary where one of his descendants– he would just cry because he missed home. [00:24:42][9.6]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:24:42] Yeah, and to what extent? I mean, we would call that a triggering. I mean, even for folks who are– sinners, and folks would tell me, Man, that movie made me cry. Hey it’s triggering, what is it triggering? Is triggering like what if folks call? It post-traumatic slave complex that you like, have– you know, you empathize, right? Because you know, that could be you. And yeah, I mean, Emmett was talking to us the other day about the fact that he always imagined when he saw the footage for the first time, he was blown away because, you know, everybody in his line looked just like Cujo. He said, that’s exactly how I thought it was going to look. So in his mind’s eye, his imagination, he had already dreamed of his great, great, great granddaddy. He’d always seen them. [00:25:28][45.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:25:28] It’s as if also like it’s– I mean, this story like you said, they knew where that ship was and the descendants have been there and the oral history has been there. But this whole thing has lived so long as like urban legend as myth as– [00:25:46][18.3]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:25:48] Yeah, the I remember Dora Franklin telling it in Margaret’s previous film, they mentioned the story about the Clotilda in the way that Dora describes it as a bet, and that the notion the popularization of the myth as a bet right. You know, yeah, I mean it’s, this movie is an active contemplation of that. But it was never, you know, it was it wasn’t a bet. It was some secessionist sitting around trying to figure out how they’re going, give the finger to the union. And so I’m a arrogant ship maker I’m a build me a ship. I’m a go to —-, where they still putting folks through the door of no return or whatever the mechanism is. I’ma get me some fresh saltwater negroes in 1859. So, you know, it’s the arrogance of secession. [00:26:39][50.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:26:40] And it’s almost as if I think like the the emotional reaction to it is almost indifferent like that. It gives, you know, the discovery of the ship in your hand now somehow gives validity to all of this pain that existed in the tales and in the oral tradition. But like, my God, when you have something to hold in your hand, it just becomes so close and so real. And I remember when I watched this doc with my husband, there’s a moment where I mean, what’s obviously a simulation, but it’s like this ship and all of the bodies curled up underneath stacked up. And I used to see images like that in college, you know, studying African-American history. But I realized for as much of this kind of content that I consume on a regular basis that like watching the descendants of those people see that representation hurts so bad. [00:27:38][58.3]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:27:39] Oh yeah, I was just talking to Joycelyn about the fact that she’s got to walk those streets every day with her ancestors, enslavers names on them, you know? And when she says she’s tired, you know, it’s like my mama and them, when they say they tired they tired, right? You know, how much more resiliency can I put out? And I think that that’s captured in this in this narrative, and it’s important for for the conversation. You know, these folks, they’re doing us, they’re doing us a service community service by letting us experience what they what they’re going through. You know, they stand instead for for the rest of us. [00:28:23][44.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:28:24] Isn’t it kind of crazy, though, like it’s as if Zora Neale Hurston knew how important what she was doing was when she was interviewing him and like that. I mean, why would you take so long to come out something about her wanting to preserve the native tongue? Like, what does that mean? And where had this book been and how could we have known that we would need this? [00:28:48][24.0]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:28:49] Yeah, I mean, in Dust Track on the Road she alludes to her relationship with Osgood Mason, her patron, right in one of the things the patron is like, I don’t know. I like to imagine. Osgood Mason, and I don’t know, I haven’t studied their relationship, but I like to imagine her patronage is being connected to that sort of sensibility. Let me experience a little Blackness, but that too much. Right? And so in large part, Husrton had a lot of pressures on. First of all, to be a woman riding a Black woman, riding through the south in a car, right? Doing ethnography, you know, stuff. You know, folklore. People didn’t even know what folklore was, you know, interviewing formerly enslaved people, or what have you to collect the culture. The document report was gone. I just know that she was incredibly self-conscious. She’s exactly what she was doing. She knew exactly. And you know, she’s not existing in in a vacuum. You know, people are down here doing WPA work back in the the person who was over sending field workers out to collect songs and and stuff. And in this time period, these are folks who have been children during slavery, you know, who still had that feeling like, I’m a talk to you, but I’m on a smile and I ain’t giving you hardly nothing. But Hurston comes along and she she goes, she crosses the burning sands of Cujo’s, you know, fulfill and get his permission. And she she gets it. And then when when —, wants to publish it. They’re like, Oh, we want you to change. The language and Hurston is like, Oh, no, no, no, no, no, that’s not ethical. I’d rather see it not be published then white wash his language. You know, she was ahead of her time in terms of wanting to represent democracy in her work. That’s democracy with little d. These are my neighbors. These are my kinfolk. I’m not going to uh-huh if I had to go through all them hoops to get this. [00:30:49][120.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:30:50] Gosh, you’ve been like so immersed in all that’s going on. But the thing about this is it’s not just history, it’s such a prolific piece of history. And I think this is just the first of hopefully many things to dive into this and expand on it. But it also has real life, real time implications like they’re the fight of the descendants of the Clatilda’s, the fight is still going on right now. What does this project stand to contribute to their plight, if anything? [00:31:20][30.0]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:31:22] I don’t know. It depends on how many folks who will see this and and appreciate it. Want to get involved with this community and want to become allies with this community. I mean, right down the road, Turkey Creek is another very similar location in Gulfport, Mississippi. Going through something very, very similar in the documentary was made about that, but that didn’t stop Turkey Creek from going away. You know, so the documentary itself is limited and only to the extent that people can become part of the cohort. People can bring their their talents, their privilege, their allies ship to bear on on this particular dynamic. You know, some people like to go and do the historical tourism in Africa, and they go they they had that moment at the door of no return. And you know, right here, we got it. We got a door of arrival. And it’s not just a slave block. It’s a testament to the arrogance of the the trade. [00:32:26][64.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:32:28] Thank you so much. I wish we had longer, but- [00:32:30][2.0]

Margaret Brown: [00:32:31] No, thank you, I appreciate it, and I’m grateful for the work you do over at ya’lls place. And keep up the good work. [00:32:39][7.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:32:39] Thank you so much. You take care. [00:32:40][1.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:32:44] Thank you for listening to Acting Up. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, comments and suggestions to podcasts@theGrio.com. Acting Up is brought to you by theGrio and executive produced by Cortney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. For more with me and Acting Up. Check us out on Instagram @ActingUp.Pod. [00:32:44][0.0]

[1915.8

Margaret Brown: [00:05:27] Thank you. It was a team effort in front of the camera and behind the camera. It was- director is a weird word for this one. [00:05:35][7.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:05:35] There is so much to dove into with this documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Margaret, oh my god. Like how- how did this story even come to you and how did you begin to try to tackle it? [00:05:48][13.4]

Margaret Brown: [00:05:49] Well, actually, it started 15 years ago. I made another film called The Order of Myths that was about segregated Mardi Gras in Mobile and at a certain point in the filmmaking after Mardi Gras, I had heard before I made the film, people talked about it almost like a rumor or gossip or something. I heard like, Oh, the Mayor fam- the Queen that year Hellen Mayor who’s a member of the Mayor family and people will be like, Oh, her family brought the slave ship the Clotilda to Mobile. But this is like nothing I had learned about in history books or like, I didn’t really know that story. I was like, Oh, OK. And then after Mardi Gras was over, you know, after I’d followed Helen’s journey, some other people who were debutantes in the white Mardi Gras court and then Stephanie Lucas and Joseph Roberson’s journey, who were the king and queen for the Black Mardi Gras court I was filming, I was doing sound and the cinematographer was shooting. We were filming with Stephanie and her grandparents because their grandparents had kind of raised her and, Stephanie’s grandfather says, just casually mentions, Oh, on camera, my family is descended off that ship, the Mayor ship. And I was just like, Excuse me what? And then Stephanie goes, My people are from her people show. And I looked at the cinematographer and he looked at me and we didn’t say anything at the time. We just sort of I could see he knew what I knew, which is like, Oh my God, like these two Mardi Gras queens are connected from the Clotilda. That was in 2007. Then the film changed. The film became around the Clotilda, so it became it became very focused around the Clotilda. So Kern Jackson, who was in this film, he worked with me on that film. He was the historical advisor, and we would sit in this coffee shop in Mobil and just talking about this for hours. And then about four years ago, when Ben Raines announced that he- this isn’t really in the film, but Ben Raines, who ended up finding the ship he announced like two years before that, that that he felt he thought he found the ship. But it turned out not to be the ship that the real ship was found about a year later. So around 2018 or maybe 2017, the details are hazy. Like when that happened, I started getting emails from people and messages on my social media saying, Hey, like, you know, this is all being reported. This might be the Clotilda, but that’s actually not the story. There’s a more interesting story should come back and film, you know? And I was like, never. I mean, usually like when you make a film, you don’t go make another one. So I didn’t think that was not the plan, you know? But that’s the thing about documentaries. You never know what’s going to happen. So Louis Black, who is one of the associate producers in the film, he was like, You have to go like, you have to go back like, this is so sort of wild. And so he he wrote me a check, like in a restaurant in L.A. it was like go. And so I got on a plane and went, and that’s sort of how the film’s started. [00:08:39][169.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:08:39] That is incredible. [00:08:40][0.5]

Margaret Brown: [00:08:41] It was a very auspicious beginning. Yes. [00:08:42][1.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:08:43] This is such a loaded story. I mean, even just like recounting it so casually to you a minute ago, it sounded like a drama like a nighttime soap, you know, like a real, holy moly. There’s like a lot going on in like a big, powerful bad family in like Erin Brockovich style community, the pollution from industry being put on this land and people getting sick in large numbers who live there like there is so much going on here. [00:09:14][30.6]

Margaret Brown: [00:09:15] There’s a lot going on. I would say that I know the Mayor of family has done things that are bad, but I would also say like slavery is not just their problem like this is something that is, you know, it’s the South’s problem, it’s the country’s problem. It’s a global problem. And I believe it’s Ramsay’s says in the movie, when this happens, if they don’t speak, they’re going to be the avatar of silent slave holders. And like, I frankly don’t think that like good and evil is that clear cut like Helen Mayor was in the Order of Myths and she traveled around with the film. And I don’t think she’s a bad person. I think her family’s telling her not to talk. But I do think that like this, this legacy of silence is really unhealthy and it’s the problem of the South. You know, it’s like, I mean, it’s it’s it’s for white people to figure out, you know? And I think that like, there’s a lot of reckoning to go around I wanted in the film. I don’t want it all focused on the Mayor of family. There’s a lot of us white people that need to interrogate ourselves. You know what I mean, it’s not it’s not just the Mayors. [00:10:21][66.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:10:22] Well how did she feel about you doing this? Because I do think that the film, I don’t think it was an indictment in any stretch of that family or, you know, the existing family now. But having known her and worked with her, like, did it- did you feel a little responsibility to be very. [00:10:37][15.2]

Margaret Brown: [00:10:38] I don’t think- I felt I felt a responsibility to what I perceive as the truth. And I asked Helen if she would talk to me. She didn’t answer. She wrote me back about other things, but not that. And, you know, so I don’t know what she’s thinking, and I would never try to speak for her. But it does make me sad that they don’t speak, and I hope when people watch the movie, they think about the toll of silence. You know it. It can’t be healthy. Does that make sense? I don’t know. [00:11:07][28.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:11:08] No, it’s complicated. I literally said to my husband, we watch this together over the weekend, and I said to him, Damn, like, what about the existing Mayor family? Like, you know, the 40 year old who, like many extremely wealthy and old white families, heads of Fortune’s Masters of of Business and Wall Street did come from family money that benefited from slavery. Like what if you were just woke up in 2022 and someone was like, Yo, your family did this? And like all you did, actually truly was be born? That’s a real thing, too. So like I said, I don’t think the film is an indictment of this family as much as, you know, a system and of a legacy and one that doesn’t, I think, have a clear answer at all. It’s very messy, like this is the only one this doesn’t have. This is not a trend like this. There’s not a bunch of instances. [00:12:07][58.6]

Margaret Brown: [00:12:09] Environmental racism in Black communities with industrial- there is that trend. But you know, I’ve made a few other films that dealt with, you know, environmental racism, and it’s not an accident. I mean, it’s a kind of like willful forgetting, you know, or that’s a nice way to say it. But like, it’s yeah, I think it’s really complicated and I’m not trying to be an apologist for that family. I’m just trying to be honest about like, like you explained it better than I could like. What do you do when you wake up and like you’re only sin is being born into a certain family and people in your family who you love have really strong opinions like in maybe you don’t agree with them? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what’s going on, but you know, yeah, [00:12:49][40.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:12:50] yeah, it’s a lot [00:12:51][0.7]

Margaret Brown: [00:12:51] But I know if it was my family, I would have made different decisions. But like, who knows? You can’t. You can’t know something until you walk into people’s shoes, but it’s hard to sort of give them the benefit of the doubt for certain decisions. But you know, it’s also hard to blame someone for what family they were born into. It’s very complicated. [00:13:08][17.2]

Cortney Wills: [00:13:09] So the people who walked off of this boat and were not slaves, what did they do? [00:13:15][6.0]

Margaret Brown: [00:13:15] First of all, the movie is about world history, and from what I can gather from records and historians is that some of them were sent to different plantations for- there– I mean, it’s hard because their stories passed down in families in Africa Town that’s there that say that no one was ever enslaved. So that could possibly be true. I think there’s records that say that some people were enslaved. So, you know, again, like, but who? Who writes the history. So it’s like, I think one thing this film I hope to interrogate is like, why people write down what when. Like who has the power to create the narrative? And like, if you think about like people, I’m probably murdering this statistic and I need to get it right before I do more press. But I know that like I think one out of seven people was literate back then, those are probably white men. So like, who was writing history, you know? So you start to know this stuff is sort of changes your definition of like well what is history. [00:14:19][63.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:14:20] That is such a good point? And what is history? Absolutely. And having a piece of this ship, though, I mean, that’s tangible. They were saying they might be able to do like DNA tracing even. Yeah. To really define the lineage, which is mind blowing. But you said something that I want to come back to you and that is, yeah, like who controls the narrative and who writes it down and who documents it? And I wonder for you as a white woman coming to this huge, hugely important piece of Black history, like what goes into that? [00:14:51][31.1]

Margaret Brown: [00:14:52] I mean, it’s like for me, if I’m going to make it about myself for a second, this is like the question that plagued me once I realize, like the Mayor family wasn’t going to talk to me and a lot of white people in Mobile weren’t going to talk to me because they were afraid to speak. Then I was like, Oh my God, am I really a white person making a movie about Black people owning their story? Like, what the fuck? You know, I mean, it was just like, This is not a position I want to be in. I don’t know if I should. Be in this position, like at that point, it was kind of like pretty far down the road where I’m already making the movie, it’s already funded. I had a lot of hubris and thought because Helen was in my other movie that she would probably talk to me if no one else in that family talked to me since we traveled with the movie, went to Sundance, went to other places. She was vocal about being from a family that brought the last slave ship to America. She did not shy away from that. So I was very suprised- I thought, Oh, well, I can. Surely she’ll talk to me like, we did this together already. But you know what? There’s something about proof when they bring the ship up. People don’t talk. It changes the narrative. This tangible proof. I mean, this is what I’m guessing. The tangible proof changed her willingness to speak. [00:16:00][68.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:16:01] Yeah, that’s so deep. But you know what you said, too, like you thought and you seemed to, you had every reason to believe you probably had a unique ability to tell this story because of your access to her and your and your previous work. And when that’s not the case, even though it might feel like, especially when you must have made this movie like the social climate and the, you know, we want to tell our own stories. Yeah, the height of all of that had to be daunting, but like what would be the alternative? To not make? to not use that, check that you in, you know, for whatever merit and reason and your ability to get a check and go make an important movie like that’s and that’s a an amazing ability. And so why not make it and make it honestly the way that you did and like, make this beautiful thing that I think is just the beginning obviously, this will not likely be the last project based on this. There’s so much more to uncover and to continue with. But I think that there is something to be said for you doing it, and I’m glad that you did. [00:17:08][67.0]

Margaret Brown: [00:17:09] Well, thank you for saying that. I think like the reasons I have the ability to make it are because of privilege. And, you know, I went to Brown University like I grew up in a family with money. You know, you have to I don’t know. I mean, like I am wondering, I mean, the answer is clear that like, I have this opportunity. I mean, obviously, I’ve worked really hard to get where I am. I’m not taking away from that. I know how hard I work. But there’s another part of it, which is just like white privilege and very, you know, just like own all of it, I don’t know, I just like, I think about all of it. So, it was hard. It was it was a lot of internal struggle. But again, like the movie’s not about me and I want it like, this is really important to me. It’s my hometown. It’s something that I do think white people have to reckon with. And so if I can be a part of that, then great, you know, I’m going to be part of that conversation. [00:17:57][48.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:17:58] I love that, and I’m so glad that you’re part of this conversation. I could talk to you about for so much longer, but I have to let you go. So my final question is, you know, when I see really strong documentaries like this that plant so many seeds in my own mind, I know that there must be so much more that didn’t make it in so much left on the cutting room floor. So if there’s one thing, one area that you either scratch the surface of or didn’t even get to like, you know, if you had one more hour, what what would have made it in there? [00:18:27][28.8]

Margaret Brown: [00:18:28] We really wanted to take a trip as a group to Benin, but then the pandemic happened because you know how Emmett talks about Cujo always wanted to go back home. Zora Neale Hurston wrote it about that. I like, you know, Vito’s very curious about where she’s from. All of them are so curious. But then when the pandemic happened, it’s clear that that trip is not going to happen. So that was very difficult. Maybe that’s a sequel, I don’t know. But that desire from that community has not gone away. [00:18:57][29.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:18:57] That would be so amazing to see. Margaret, thanks so much for your time today and your candor. It’s rare that I get to hear that perspective, and I think that it’s really important and valuable, and I think that this documentary stands to just make such an impact on so many of us. So thank you for it. [00:19:18][20.8]

Margaret Brown: [00:19:18] You’re welcome and thank you for talking deeply to me. Appreciate it. [00:19:22][3.3]

Cortney Wills: [00:19:22] Absolutely. You take care. I’ll also speak to Kern Jackson, who served as a historical consultant on Descendent about the implications a discovery like this could have for generations to come. Hi, Kern. Thank you so much for joining me today to talk about this incredible documentary called Descendent that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. That just has affected me so deeply. I think it’s so important. (Wow. OK, OK.) I think it’s so important, like what it means and what it could mean, and just this tangible like thing that is probably like so close, like one of the most close, untouched like connections is just overwhelming. [00:20:11][49.5]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:20:13] The more we talk about it with other folks, cause, you know, we’ve been talking among ourselves for so long. The more we talk about it to other folks, the more I feel like folks in Africa Town are standard instead of a bunch of whole people, you know, a whole bunch of other folk, [00:20:28][15.3]

Cortney Wills: [00:20:29] All of that for sure. I actually just finished speaking to Margaret about this film, and we touched on, I think, some really important things about her approach to this. But what I really wanted to talk to you about is the history of this. I mean, talk about talk about Black history. This is so insane, and I feel like I have so many questions for you, including what can a physical thing, a discovery like this, this ship the wreckage of what is probably the last slave ship to come over from Africa has been discovered. And what can that do for us? Like, what can it really show us? [00:21:09][39.7]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:21:10] I mean, so many things, not the least of which is sort of the the arrogance of power. You know, this is like the folks in Africa Town say throughout the whole thing, we knew where was I? Ben Raines did not discover this ship. People in Africa Town already knew where it was and had been functioning with the power of that knowledge and the implications of what it has to sort of trouble the waters to borrow another phrase or, you know, the city fathers and mothers and Chamber of Commerce, this sort of thing. What it can do, though, when they raise it up is like that. Gary Lombard says, Oh my God, when we started doing DNA trace and we find out that, you know, it ain’t just the Black people related to the Clotilda. With the amount of 19th century miscegenation land around this Gulf Coast town, we didn’t just get a Creole population out of the air. And so, you know, these arbitrary divisions of community like where you go at 11 o’clock, and where I go at 11 o’clock and they’re going to dissapate when we find out we cousins. [00:22:15][64.4]

Cortney Wills: [00:22:16] Wow, that is so wild. That is so why there’s so much about this documentary that is really, really kind of wild. Like, it seems like it could be a major drama. I told Margaret, like I could imagine a whole mini series about all of the elements of this thing. But one thing that I thought was so, so, so fascinating is that my favorite author, Zora Neale Hurston, got something else almost as unfathomable as the ship itself, which is this firsthand in his native tongue account of his life story from someone who walked off of that ship like recorded or, you know, from conversations conducted when like, 1926, I think, or ’28 maybe and was just published in 2018? [00:23:03][47.3]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:23:06] No, I mean, Hurston had to have got her lead from somewhere, right? So the the tip she received that encouraged her to come over here. I think she came over here from New Orleans when she was down in New Orleans. The tip this you see, along with the ethnographic investigation she was already conducting, she was looking for voodoo people and she was trying to sort through what are the implications of this spirituality? What are the what do these folks have it in more concrete ways. You know, what are they practicing? I mean, she’s writing letters to Langston Hughes saying, You know, they’re supposed to be working on Newbold, the play, and she’s writing letters to him saying, boy guess what I found? Right? And they had a really- not a tumultuous relationship. They had a relationship that was little, you know, like big sister, little brother type thing. She was she would tell them what she really thought. And just to read some of those letters and stuff about, you know, sleeping on Cujo’s couch or whatever in his space and having the good sense to wait out the the richness of the interaction because because you look at Barracoon, who she had to jump through some hoops to get that narative, he didn’t just give it to her. She had to prove herself worthy to get to a place where he felt comfortable with her being present when he was crying. [00:24:30][84.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:24:32] You just like took me back to the part of the documentary where one of his descendants– he would just cry because he missed home. [00:24:42][9.6]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:24:42] Yeah, and to what extent? I mean, we would call that a triggering. I mean, even for folks who are– sinners, and folks would tell me, Man, that movie made me cry. Hey it’s triggering, what is it triggering? Is triggering like what if folks call? It post-traumatic slave complex that you like, have– you know, you empathize, right? Because you know, that could be you. And yeah, I mean, Emmett was talking to us the other day about the fact that he always imagined when he saw the footage for the first time, he was blown away because, you know, everybody in his line looked just like Cujo. He said, that’s exactly how I thought it was going to look. So in his mind’s eye, his imagination, he had already dreamed of his great, great, great granddaddy. He’d always seen them. [00:25:28][45.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:25:28] It’s as if also like it’s– I mean, this story like you said, they knew where that ship was and the descendants have been there and the oral history has been there. But this whole thing has lived so long as like urban legend as myth as– [00:25:46][18.3]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:25:48] Yeah, the I remember Dora Franklin telling it in Margaret’s previous film, they mentioned the story about the Clotilda in the way that Dora describes it as a bet, and that the notion the popularization of the myth as a bet right. You know, yeah, I mean it’s, this movie is an active contemplation of that. But it was never, you know, it was it wasn’t a bet. It was some secessionist sitting around trying to figure out how they’re going, give the finger to the union. And so I’m a arrogant ship maker I’m a build me a ship. I’m a go to —-, where they still putting folks through the door of no return or whatever the mechanism is. I’ma get me some fresh saltwater negroes in 1859. So, you know, it’s the arrogance of secession. [00:26:39][50.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:26:40] And it’s almost as if I think like the the emotional reaction to it is almost indifferent like that. It gives, you know, the discovery of the ship in your hand now somehow gives validity to all of this pain that existed in the tales and in the oral tradition. But like, my God, when you have something to hold in your hand, it just becomes so close and so real. And I remember when I watched this doc with my husband, there’s a moment where I mean, what’s obviously a simulation, but it’s like this ship and all of the bodies curled up underneath stacked up. And I used to see images like that in college, you know, studying African-American history. But I realized for as much of this kind of content that I consume on a regular basis that like watching the descendants of those people see that representation hurts so bad. [00:27:38][58.3]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:27:39] Oh yeah, I was just talking to Joycelyn about the fact that she’s got to walk those streets every day with her ancestors, enslavers names on them, you know? And when she says she’s tired, you know, it’s like my mama and them, when they say they tired they tired, right? You know, how much more resiliency can I put out? And I think that that’s captured in this in this narrative, and it’s important for for the conversation. You know, these folks, they’re doing us, they’re doing us a service community service by letting us experience what they what they’re going through. You know, they stand instead for for the rest of us. [00:28:23][44.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:28:24] Isn’t it kind of crazy, though, like it’s as if Zora Neale Hurston knew how important what she was doing was when she was interviewing him and like that. I mean, why would you take so long to come out something about her wanting to preserve the native tongue? Like, what does that mean? And where had this book been and how could we have known that we would need this? [00:28:48][24.0]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:28:49] Yeah, I mean, in Dust Track on the Road she alludes to her relationship with Osgood Mason, her patron, right in one of the things the patron is like, I don’t know. I like to imagine. Osgood Mason, and I don’t know, I haven’t studied their relationship, but I like to imagine her patronage is being connected to that sort of sensibility. Let me experience a little Blackness, but that too much. Right? And so in large part, Husrton had a lot of pressures on. First of all, to be a woman riding a Black woman, riding through the south in a car, right? Doing ethnography, you know, stuff. You know, folklore. People didn’t even know what folklore was, you know, interviewing formerly enslaved people, or what have you to collect the culture. The document report was gone. I just know that she was incredibly self-conscious. She’s exactly what she was doing. She knew exactly. And you know, she’s not existing in in a vacuum. You know, people are down here doing WPA work back in the the person who was over sending field workers out to collect songs and and stuff. And in this time period, these are folks who have been children during slavery, you know, who still had that feeling like, I’m a talk to you, but I’m on a smile and I ain’t giving you hardly nothing. But Hurston comes along and she she goes, she crosses the burning sands of Cujo’s, you know, fulfill and get his permission. And she she gets it. And then when when —, wants to publish it. They’re like, Oh, we want you to change. The language and Hurston is like, Oh, no, no, no, no, no, that’s not ethical. I’d rather see it not be published then white wash his language. You know, she was ahead of her time in terms of wanting to represent democracy in her work. That’s democracy with little d. These are my neighbors. These are my kinfolk. I’m not going to uh-huh if I had to go through all them hoops to get this. [00:30:49][120.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:30:50] Gosh, you’ve been like so immersed in all that’s going on. But the thing about this is it’s not just history, it’s such a prolific piece of history. And I think this is just the first of hopefully many things to dive into this and expand on it. But it also has real life, real time implications like they’re the fight of the descendants of the Clatilda’s, the fight is still going on right now. What does this project stand to contribute to their plight, if anything? [00:31:20][30.0]

Dr. Kern Jackson: [00:31:22] I don’t know. It depends on how many folks who will see this and and appreciate it. Want to get involved with this community and want to become allies with this community. I mean, right down the road, Turkey Creek is another very similar location in Gulfport, Mississippi. Going through something very, very similar in the documentary was made about that, but that didn’t stop Turkey Creek from going away. You know, so the documentary itself is limited and only to the extent that people can become part of the cohort. People can bring their their talents, their privilege, their allies ship to bear on on this particular dynamic. You know, some people like to go and do the historical tourism in Africa, and they go they they had that moment at the door of no return. And you know, right here, we got it. We got a door of arrival. And it’s not just a slave block. It’s a testament to the arrogance of the the trade. [00:32:26][64.0]

Cortney Wills: [00:32:28] Thank you so much. I wish we had longer, but- [00:32:30][2.0]

Margaret Brown: [00:32:31] No, thank you, I appreciate it, and I’m grateful for the work you do over at ya’lls place. And keep up the good work. [00:32:39][7.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:32:39] Thank you so much. You take care. [00:32:40][1.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:32:44] Thank you for listening to Acting Up. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, comments and suggestions to podcasts@theGrio.com. Acting Up is brought to you by theGrio and executive produced by Cortney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. For more with me and Acting Up. Check us out on Instagram @ActingUp.Pod. [00:32:44][0.0]