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ROSEN’S REVIEW: Descendant is this year’s best documentary

Brooklyn producer Essie Chambers is part of the special team behind the film

October 13, 2022 Evan Rosen Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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As a flurry of films continue to bustle out of the 60th annual New York Film Festival, there’s been one documentary that has stood above the rest; that feels all the more important, given its subject matter and timeliness. I’m not talking about the festival’s centerpiece selection – All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, another noteworthy documentary which follows the life of activist/artist Nan Goldin. I’m talking about Margaret Brown’s Descendant.

The film (set to release Oct. 21 on Netflix) chronicles a community’s effort to locate the remains of the last known slave ship to come to America – the Clotilda – and the direct descendants of these slaves who still reside in Africatown, near Mobile, Alabama, where the ship docked back in 1860. It’s a powerful and moving tale of a city grappling with its history; a microcosm of our country’s racial reckoning as well as an intimate portrait of how our society still reflects the injustices perpetrated generations ago. 

Joe Womack in Descendant. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

The story, simultaneously tragic and hopeful, also wrestles with the idea of reparations, white fragility, systemic racism, and the different ways history is erased, sidestepped, or minimized by people in power. It’s one of the most important documentaries in recent memory because it’s at the heart of the conversation around the future of our country and our political divide. It was produced by an amazing team that includes Brown, the director,, as well Kyle Martin, and Brooklynite Essie Chambers. I had the pleasure of speaking with Chambers during the festival to discuss the film. 

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“It feels like there’s an urgency to this story,” Chambers said. “There’s many people who do not want this to be seen anywhere. There’s a bigger conversation now, with the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Clint Smith, and rethinking American history. We were all sort of taught a history of our country that doesn’t really exist. And now we can think about how to recenter American history, in part, around black American history.”

Essie Chambers is behind one of this years most important films. Photo: Essie Chambers

Indeed, it’s the story of the Clotilda that can now be acknowledged as real history. Before the remains of the ship were discovered (spoiler alert – the reemergence of the wreckage has been major news since 2019), the events were almost exclusively passed down in families through word of mouth. A large part of the survival of the accounts is due to writer and filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston, who took time to write down the account of Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last survivors of those brought over and sold into slavery. She copied his account verbatim in her book ​​Barracoon and refused to edit it, despite pressures from editors and their refusals to publish it (the book was later published posthumously).

“The film is about the denial of a history, but it’s also a testament to the power of oral traditions and the idea that oral history is not a lesser history,” Chambers tells me. “So it feels incredibly important for us watching and experiencing the story, to keep telling it. Because, if you change the narrative, you change history.”

Chambers, a writer and producer who has lived in Brooklyn for the past 16 years and a proud daughter of Civil Rights activists, met Margaret Brown while the two were completing their MacDowell Fellowship residencies in 2016. Brown later asked her to join the project during the beginning stages of filming, and she became an integral part of the now star-studded team that has helped this project gain the platform it deserves.

Veda Tunstall in Descendant. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix ©

President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and their new production company Higher Ground have signed on, as well as Two One Five Entertainment – founded by members of The Roots, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter who have also signed on to executive produce. As it turns out, Questlove is actually a descendant himself of Charlie Lewis, one of the enslaved passengers who was brought over on the Clotilda

Chambers says, “It’s been an absolute dream. Even going back to Participant Media, who are also our producers (and who are still doing work in the community to affect positive change), it’s been like at every inflection point, this story has met the right people to support it.”

Something tells me the film will continue to be supported and amplified as it gets set to release on October 21st, 2022 exclusively on Netflix. As for Chambers, she tells me she is working on finishing work on another documentary as well as her debut novel, about the experience of a family of color living in an all white community.

“My brand is working at the intersection of justice and storytelling,” said Chambers. “My hope is that the film will inspire people to learn more about this community and to tell their own family stories.”

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