Following news that the award-winning documentary “Descendant” will screen as an official selection at the 60th New York Film Festival, Variety can exclusively announce that the film will launch Oct. 21 on Netflix and in select theaters.
Directed by Margaret Brown (“The Order of Myths,” “Be Here to Love Me: Townes Van Zandt,” “The Great Invisible”), the documentary follows members of Africatown, a small community in Alabama, as they share their personal stories and community history as descendants of the Clotilda, the last known ship illegally carrying enslaved Africans to the United States. The ship arrived in America 40 years after African slave trading became a capital offense. It was promptly burned and its existence denied, but now, as the documentary’s logline explains, “after a century shrouded in secrecy and speculation, descendants of the Clotilda’s survivors are reclaiming their story.”
The documentary made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the U.S. special jury award for creative vision. Shortly thereafter, Netflix acquired worldwide rights to the film, with Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground signing on to present the feature alongside the streamer and Participant.
“I have been humbled and honored to spend four years with the residents of Africatown as they seek justice and reconciliation for what happened in 1860, and what is still happening today,” Brown said in a statement announcing the acquisition. “I am excited that through Netflix and Higher Ground’s global reach, audiences around the world will learn this powerful history.”
Last Friday night, the Obamas made a surprise appearance at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival to promote the documentary as it screened on opening night of the fest’s 20th anniversary edition.
“When we screened this… we looked at it and immediately thought, ‘This is why we’re doing Higher Ground.’ Because what we know about our history as Black people, we don’t talk about nothing. We can’t get anything out of our elders, can we? We don’t know anything,” Michelle Obama said. “We have to tell our stories to our younger folks. We have to be the ones, we cannot follow that tradition of keeping our pain silent, because what this film shows us is our stories are the power that makes us seen.”
Barack Obama added: “When we left the White House, Michelle and I talked about the things we wanted to do post-presidency. We’ve got a lot of stuff going on, but one of the things that we learned both when we were campaigning for office and taking office was the importance of stories and who tells stories and what stories are valid and what stories are discounted … We believe that everybody’s stories matter. Everybody’s got a sacred story that motivates us, moves us. It’s not just a matter of nostalgia, it powers us into the present and the future.”
“Descendant” is produced by Kyle Martin, Essie Chambers and Brown, all of whom were present at the MVAAFF screening and participated in a Q&A with Clotilda descendants and Africatown residents Joycelyn Davis and Veda Tunstall, both subjects in the documentary. Executive producers are Participant’s Jeff Skoll and Diane Weyermann; Kate Hurwitz of Cinetic Media; Two One Five Entertainment’s Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, Shawn Gee and Zarah Zohlman.
The full lineup of official selections for the 2022 edition the New York Film Festival can be found here.
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