‘Descendant’ Review: The Search for Ancestry and Dignity

Slavery seems to be one of the most transcendental topics in the USA. A lot of time has passed since the system was abolished in the country, but many communities still feel trapped in it. They feel like they are being dragged down by what happened to their ancestors. It is a very difficult and complex subject to talk about because there are more than historical facts involved. There is also emotion, and when that gets into the mix, it can be troublesome. Descendant, a new Netflix documentary, dwells on an event that deals with this subject. Let’s review it.

The documentary is directed by Margaret Brown and tells the story of the small community of African Town, located in Alabama, USA. The inhabitants of the town are direct descendants of the slaves who came in the last slave ship to set shore in the USA. The ship, the Clotilda, has been shrouded in mystery for hundreds of years and finding it might unlock the ancestry mystery that surrounds the identity of many people in the community. However, the discovery of the wreckage of the ship could change things forever.

Descendant is a very difficult documentary to talk about. As you see in the film, it is clear that for the people in the town, knowing where their ancestors came from is of utmost importance. This level of definition of identity is something very personal. You might watch the documentary and still never understand what the fuzz is about finding this ship. And so it results in a documentary that has a very specific target audience and a larger audience that might not be interested in it.

It doesn’t have anything to do with skin color, but you are either interested in this subject, or you are not. It will all depend on your mood and if you can identify with this particular subject. Being an outsider to the situation at hand allows me to see the documentary from the point of view of someone who knows nothing about the subject in question. And even though there is African blood in me as well, I’m in no way shape or form living in the same situation as these people from Alabama. I’ve never wanted to see where my black ancestors came from, so it is hard to connect with the movie.

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A lot of people will find themselves in the same situation. If you’re not in, there you’re not in, and Descendant doesn’t have anything else other than a very interesting history lesson to attach yourself to if you cannot identify with the main conflict that the documentary presents. The documentary focuses very much on identity and ancestry, and many of the subjects focus on that as well. However, the most interesting parts are the history lessons and how what happened in the past is affecting the town nowadays.

These consequences, and seeing how the battle is still being fought by the people of African Town, develop into the most interesting angle in the film. However, this angle, like everything else in the documentary, feels a bit disorganized and scattered. There are some truly intriguing stories here, coming from both historians and the people who live in the town, but the movie has a hard time organizing all the pieces into something coherent. Brown would need to really work on editing everything into a more compelling version of this same film, with a lot more focus on storytelling over politics.

The documentary might not be for everyone, in reality just a very specific target will enjoy this film o a level that goes beyond curiosity, and it is because of that that it is hard to recommend. Brown and her team are doing a lot of work, and you can feel it and see it. Because of it, it is a change that it is not a movie that you can enjoy more easily.

The cinematography is very good, and the camera is able to capture all the events and traditions of these people in such a way it that feels like you are visiting them, which seems like a fun time. It is at the same time sad when the cameras show the effect that the surrounding factories are having on the land and the inhabitants of the town. As the movie finishes, it does so with a very bittersweet tone as the members of the community have certainly achieved something, but it seems it isn’t enough for them to move on towards the future.

In the end, Descendant is a solid documentary. But its target audience is so specific that it feels like some other audiences might have a hard time getting into the subject or being able to care for what is being presented. Some of the most emotional movements ring hollow, not because they are not important, but because to an outsider the presentation lacks a bit of context. Without it, the runtime passes as a lot of people talk and get emotional for strange reasons. It is hard to make connections, and sometimes a film just works for a very specific group of people.

SCORE: 6/10

  • Nelson loves all things related to storytelling. He has spent most of his life studying narrative, applied across all mediums; film, TV, books, and video games. Mulholland Drive is his favorite film.