"Clotilda" descendants and community activists. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
A documentary about the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa has been shortlisted for an Academy Award as descendants work to fight pollution around its historic community.
The big picture: The Netflix film "Descendant" is backed by the Obamas' Higher Ground Productions and comes as the nation is experiencing an intense debate on how to remember and teach about slavery.
Zoom in: "Descendant" follows Black residents in the community of Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, as scholars and divers look for the remains of the Clotilda — the ship that brought their ancestors to the U.S.
- The ship was built by wealthy Mobile shipyard owner Timothy Meaher and was burned to hide evidence since the international transport of enslaved people was illegal at the time.
- Filmmaker Margaret Brown documents the torn feelings of residents about the search for the ship and their relationship with descendants of the Meaher family, who still wield power in the area.
What they're saying: "This is like a community of storytellers that have been passing down a story, pretty much in silence, for 160 years," Brown told Axios.
- Brown said once she started to get to know the descendants, she understood the documentary wouldn't be about a lost ship but rather about the people involved.
State of play: Alabama is one of many states where Republicans are seeking to limit discussions of racism and slavery in public schools, claiming they want to fight critical race theory.
- The Alabama State Board of Education cemented its ban on critical race theory into its administrative code in 2021, putting teachers' jobs at risk if they discuss issues like enslavement.
- Brown said once her film came out, teachers sent her photos of their classroom watching the documentary in class. "It's so sad that showing a film about history, and retelling with a historical corrective, will be considered a subversive act right now," she said.
Flashback: Author Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis, one of the last Clotilda survivors, in 1927.
- She filmed him, and he shared details about his life in Africa before being captured.
- Hurston recorded his story verbatim in his vernacular language, but she never saw her book about Lewis published.
- "Barracoon" was finally published in 2018, well after Hurston's death, generating more interest in Africatown.
The intrigue: In the film, descendants of Lewis read his own words from "Barracoon."
- They walk around the cemetery where family members are buried. Much of the area is surrounded by companies the community says cause pollution and cancer.
- Descendants this month met with officials from the EPA in Washington to discuss environmental challenges in Africatown.
What's next: Descendants are working to raise money to build a center in Africatown to tell their story.
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