Margaret Brown’s documentary work examines the American South, from a groundbreaking film about Townes Van Zandt “Be Here to Love Me,” to the powerful story of the BP oil spill’s lasting impact “The Great Invisible,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW a couple years ago. Her film “The Order of Myths,” which examined Brown’s native Mobile, Alabama and its still segregated Mardi Gras celebration, won several awards, including a Peabody and Truer Than Fiction Independent Spirit Award. She has also done short form work for the New York Times and Field of Vision and recently directed an episode of “Dirty Money” for Netflix.
“Descendant” will be screened at the 2022 New York Film Festival, which runs September 30 – October 16.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
MB: History exists beyond what is written. The Africatown residents of Mobile, Alabama have been sharing stories of their origins for generations. Their community was founded by enslaved ancestors who were transported in 1860 aboard the last known and illegal slave ship, The Clotilda.
Although the ship was intentionally destroyed upon arrival, its memory and legacy were not. The long-awaited discovery of Clotilda’s remains gives this community a tangible link to their ancestors and confirmation of a story so many tried to bury.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
MB: When I was doing “The Order of Myths,” I was introduced to Africatown. This is a somewhat isolated residential area of Mobile, surrounded by large industry and founded by former slaves who had arrived aboard the Clotilda.
I also became close to a research folklorist at the University of South Alabama, Dr. Kern Jackson, who has spent more than two decades recording the oral histories of the Africatown community. The story remained present in my life, but I didn’t think I would ever revisit it as a filmmaker.
Then, in 2018, a friend sent me an article saying that a shipwreck had been found in the Mobile River and it was believed to be that of the Clotilda. This would be a monumental discovery, and the national media knew it, for no slave vessel had ever been discovered in North American waters. But even more poignantly for Mobile, what many had always called myths could be proven true, and the history of the Africatown community I had come to know could be verified.
Two weeks later I went to Alabama to start documenting.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after watching the film?
MB: There is a scene in the film where Anderson Flen, an Africatown resident who has worked with other community members and preservationists to transform Africatown into a tourist destination that honors the legacy of enslaved black people, visits the National Memorial for Peace and Justice , commonly known as the National Lynching Memorial. There’s this moment at the memorial where he says, “The real test a lot of times isn’t on the way. It’s what do you do when you go?”
This is the question I want the audience to ask themselves after watching this film: Now that I am a witness to this story and to the injustices that continue because of it, how do I actively participate in the story? What are my responsibilities and how do I get involved? I think that’s the key: what you do after watching the movie is just as much, and arguably more important, than what you think about.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
MB: The biggest challenge in making “Descendant” was by far my own prejudices as a white person, but luckily Creative Producer Essie Chambers had my back to navigate this along with a whole group of collaborators and subjects that I am forever grateful and constant. in awe of their patience and compassion.
W&H: How did you get your film financed? Share some insight into how you got the film made.
MB: The film was primarily funded by Participant with development grants from Sundance, A&E and Concordia.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
MB: I went to school to study poetry and was interested in the space where words ended and images began.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
MB: To be completely honest, I’m not really sure how to answer this because my brain doesn’t necessarily think that way. I don’t know that I can quantify the advice I’ve received as much as I can appreciate the various ways others have helped and inspired me when I’ve needed it most.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
MB: Advocate for yourself because no one else will do it for you. And it can be helpful for people to underestimate you.
W&H: Name your favorite film directed by women and why.
MB: “Top of the Lake”, directed by Jane Campion. It’s a show and not a movie, but I watch it over and over again because I’m in love with her fully drawn characters and silent sense of menace.
W&H: What, if any, responsibility do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?
MB: I feel that the responsibility you take on, be it cultural, political, moral, etc., should permeate your work—which means it doesn’t have to be overt. It should already be present in your approach as a storyteller.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing – and creating – negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the medical world more inclusive?
MB: It comes down to the reality that the people in power have to change and it has to be a total rewrite with women and people of color making more of the decisions. Unfortunately, the people with the biggest blind spots have the most seats at the table right now. To build an industry that is more inclusive, the power dynamics must seismically shift in a way that is both deeply meaningful and radical.