Two documentaries that made their premieres at NYFF60 concern American history bumping up against fabricated assumptions. Revealing the extent of the lies that those in power would perpetrate to remain in power, Descendant and Is That Black Enough for You?!? deal with white cultural oppression. They also emphasize the resilience and ingenuity of Blacks in overcoming and thriving despite hateful discrimination.
Exposing misrepresentations and lies
Margaret Brown’s Descendant chronicles how oppressive lies covered up the true story of the slave ship Clotilda. In Is That Black Enough for You?!? filmmaker Elvis Mitchell disputes the presumption that Black films have never achieved the success of white films. Very successful Black films led the way for white filmmakers who liberally stole ideas for plots, protagonists, conflicts, etc. Both filmmakers brilliantly use their subject matter to inspire, enlighten and encourage us to persist. They reveal that despite the lies and misrepresentations, truth wins the day.
Margaret Brown’s excellent documentary Descendant follows the revelation of the complicated story of the Clotilda. Despite the outlawing of the slave trade in the U.S. in 1807, kidnappings still happened secretly. Thus, the ship’s history as the last slave ship that reached the United States remains a vital story. Eyewitness accounts of the kidnapped slaves from 1860 may be compared to prior accounts of the slave trade. Though the kidnapped were sold into slavery, oral histories of their journey survive, passed down by their descendants.
The film’s interview clips begin with comments from a member of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, who had searched for the Clotilda. From there Brown goes into a discussion of the ship’s history. The ship was birthed through a bet wealthy Timothy Meacher made with another wealthy white man. In return for a lot of money Meacher built the ship and financed the illegal voyage. Spurred by rumors that the West African kingdom of Dahomey (today in Benin) was selling its enemies to slavers, the Clotilda’s captain, William Foster, sailed to Dahomey. Unimpeded, he purchased slaves and sailed back.
Destroying the ship
Having won his bet, Meacher burned and sank the ship to avoid a death sentence. For over 150 years, it went undiscovered, while the stories of the enslaved people lived on through their descendants, many of whom lived in Africatown, a neighborhood incorporated into Mobile, Alabama. Taking their ancestors’ history particularly from the first-person narrative of Cudjoe Lewis, the community kept the slave ship’s story alive, believing the ship would be located one day.
Brown divides the documentary into a number of parts melded together with excellent writing. Devoting one segment to the search, she interviews reporter Ben Raines and business owner Joe Turner. Fascinated by the story, these men helped locate the ship in 2019. Other interviewees include a NatGeo archaeologist and a Slave Wrecks Project member who also works for the Smithsonian. Most pertinently, Brown interviews Kern Jackson, a professor, folklorist and the film’s co-writer, who fills in fascinating details.
Zora Neale Hurston knew about the Clotilda
However, the most interesting section of the film touches base with Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston related Cudjoe Lewis’ story in her 1931 book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo. Rejected by publishers for decades, it was finally published in 2018. The coverup ended, and the most recent slave narrative broke into the daylight. For Hurston lovers, Brown includes clips of her singing songs she learned from her research.
Hurston actually filmed the environs of Lewis’ home. Always a maverick, she was the first Black female film director. Everyone who lived in Africatown knew their ancestors’ stories. Their oral tradition’s accuracy overcame the 150-plus years of lies and coverup during which white culture deemed the stories myths.
However, it was raising the ship that really proved the descendants’ oral traditions and history true. You’ll have to see Descendant to witness this thrilling adventure of the Clotilda’s discovery.
Is That Black Enough for You?!?
Comprehensive and insightful, Elvis Mitchell’s documentary (the title is a reference to an Ossie Davis film) explores the Black revolution in 1970s cinema. Mitchell covers every Black film in the canon. With incisive narrative revealing the adventure, humor and excitement, Mitchell creates his own historical perspective. Not only does he recall the history of the time, he reactivates it with his acute criticism. Selecting fabulous iconic film clips, he melds his commentary with clips illustrating his perspective.
Interviews with the greats
Though Mitchell’s writing almost exhausts the viewer, his interviews with the greats add humor and excitement. From Harry Belafonte, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Billy Dee Williams, Margaret Avery and many more, we hear the chronicle of Hollywood and filmmaking. Mitchell intercuts their salient experience with their starring vehicles. Too numerous to count, the films include genre films, social realism and more. Though the documentary covers the making of superhero movies, it also includes artistic, original films, revealing the artistry of the burgeoning Black cinematic craftsmen.
Importantly, he critically examines the Blaxploitation flicks and reveals how they inspired filmmakers to copy their maverick approach to thrilling cinema. Again and again, he reveals how ingenious Black filmmakers set standards (i.e. music incorporation) in their films which became the modus operandi of films in general. Indeed, their contributions added brilliance to the art form in a myriad of ways.
Black film history related to empowerment
Not only does Mitchell explore cinematic history, he chronicles Black political empowerment via filmmaking. Though cinema may not be considered classic Black history, Mitchell reveals subterranean cultural attitudes of the time. Crucial to the winds of change, Black films, attended by white moviegoers, inspired and influenced. Because of these movies’ very entertainment value, tolerance and acceptance won the day. Considering current racial divides, Mitchell’s perspective is important. If filmmakers and the arts countered divisions then, they can mitigate divisions now.
Both Descendant and Is That Black Enough for You?!? reveal and remind us that lies don’t live forever. This is especially so if a critical mass of individuals persist to search and overturn what cannot stand. Look for both titles to be streaming on Netflix.