One of the finest moments in Margaret Brown’s Descendant, which is now streaming on Netflix, arrives by way of a drone shot that unexpectedly alerts us to where we really are. The shot begins at ground level, on a quiet street in Mobile, Alabama, and expands upward and outward to a perch high above the treeline. The view is ominous. Smoke stacks and a highway dominate this newly unfamiliar place that we thought we’d begun to know. Surroundings that the movie had somehow obscured to this point suddenly become very visible — menacingly so. The air looks hazy with something that is undeniably not air. The stink of pollution saturates the image.
Descendant does not, at first glance, appear to be a film concerned with environmental injustice. This is not the first thing on its mind. It shares with Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes (now in theaters) an expansive interest in the history of a place, arriving at problems of the environment sideways, delivering an uppercut from out of nowhere in the midst of diving into other wreckage. Brown’s movie primarily seeks to tell the story of Africatown, Alabama, also known as Plateau, a historically Black community just north of downtown Mobile. This is a place known for its gruesome ties to American history. In 1860, what’s thought to be the last shipment of enslaved people from across the Atlantic arrived here, only half a decade before the 13th Amendment ostensibly ended slavery in the United States. This was an illegal act: Slavery was still allowed, but the importation of enslaved people from other countries had been banned since 1808. One hundred and 10 souls were captured from the Kingdom of Dahomey on a boat called the Clotilda. Because this was illegal, the mastermind of this project, a businessman named Timothy Meaher, is said to have burned the ship in an effort to hide it away. In only a handful of years, those enslaved people would be freed. They would found Africatown. They would be told never to speak of how they got there. The lost remains of the Clotilda would symbolically enforce that silence.
Of course, the people were not really silent. Descendant introduces us to living Black residents of Africatown and Mobile who’ve been hearing this story for years and have tried their best to keep it alive. Their ancestors arrived on the Clotilda. When the movie starts, they’ve been galvanized by a new search for the ship’s remains. The remnants of the ship would provide proof that’s wanted, not needed; they are not looking for validation of their family histories and do not need any convincing. They rightly have faith in the stories about Africatown and its origins that their ancestors have passed down since their arrival here. The denialism comes more from the other side: It’s what the burning of the Clotilda allowed. But the story has long been undeniable, all the more so after the recent publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” based on interviews Hurston (a cultural anthropologist and folklorist as well as novelist) conducted in 1931 with a survivor of the Clotilda. That book languished in a vault for most of the 20th century and many years into the 21st. When it was published, it lit a fire under Africatown to continue the work of mapping out its history.
Descendant skillfully weaves interviews with the living residents of Africatown with glimpses of the effort to recover the Clotilda among journalists, anthropologists, shipwreck experts, and the descendants themselves. Miraculous interludes feature the descendants reading aloud from Barracoon. Community meetings are flush with frank discussions and stirring views of the descendants’ faces, their anger and ambivalence, as efforts to find the ship progress, and politicians arrive, and questions arise about tourism and whether the community has any power against the political forces at play to retain any control over their story. It’s no spoiler to say that the remnants of the ship are found. What Descendant initially renders into something of a suspenseful hunt for the truth barely lasts for half of the movie — alerting us to the fact that it is not the only thing on the movie’s mind.
It’s in a moment like this that a drone shot suddenly broadens the literal and figurative frames of Brown’s documentary. The shot comes as we are in the middle of being told about streets and avenues and parks and other staples of neighborhood life that still bore the names of the Meaher family; about the ways that descendants of the Clotilda had sometimes unknowingly grown up surrounded by monuments to the family that once owned all of their families, violence buried within innocuous seeming monikers like “Timothy Avenue” and “Meaher State Park.” And now this: a dispiriting history of industry and environmental injustice, much of it still tied to that same ruling tribe, comes rapidly into view. With a single shot, Descendant ceases to be a story about the recovery of a ship. It rapidly morphs into something broader: a story about the land. Who owned it back in the 1800s, who owns it now, and what all of this means for everyone else.
Land was what Cudjo Lewis — the interviewee at the center of Hurston’s book, who was long thought to be the last surviving passenger of the Clotilda when he died — once demanded of the slave owner Timothy Meaher. Land is what Meaher refused to give, instead passing those assets down to his family, who remain in the area today. The industries that sprang up around Africatown in the 20th century, which have gone out of their way to pursue the most lax zoning laws possible, are the direct fruit of that lineage. So is illness: Many of the Black residents of Africatown over the years have been afflicted with cancer. They’ve taken the industries to court over the unchecked pollution and its tragic consequences, with the compensation for their suffering mostly amounting to a pittance. The Black residents interviewed throughout Descendant make their stance on all of this clear. You cannot argue that slavery is a thing of the past when the fundamental reality of something like a right to the land, and Black residents’ lack of control over that land, can still result in lives being lost in the present day.
Descendant gracefully ascends toward something like optimism, with ground being broken on a new heritage museum and concerns over who it would benefit being gently assuaged — for now — by clear evidence of the Black community’s involvement. The earlier skepticism expressed in the movie, toward historical museums and the risk of their becoming mere infotainment that inspires no action, is reassessed in this final stretch, as a visit to another museum inspires the idea of museums as validations of the community histories they contain. Justice, as such, remains conceptually murky. But soft reconciliation begins to seem possible. A descendent of Cudjo Lewis and a descendant of the Clotilda’s captain meet, shake hands, and later take a boat out to the wreck together, each of them seeing it for the first time. The visit to the wreck is not without irony. The relative of Captain Foster tries to imagine a positive outlook on this tragedy by noting that Foster was said to be a good man by, among others, Cudjo Lewis. But the idea of a “good master” is quickly shot down. It’s a remarkable conversation because it shouldn’t be possible. The Clotilda had nearly been willed out of history. The wreckage had been vandalized and lied about since the very beginning. Meaher had set the Clotilda on fire, lied about its location; later relatives, we learn from the documentary, misled the people who looked for it. A conversation between descendants showing ownership over that history was not supposed to be in the cards because the Clotilda was never intended to be recovered. It was intended to disappear.
Yet here they all are. It’s not enough to make us forget what has happened to this point, of course. It’s not enough to distract us from the bare fact of a history that generations of people tried to erase. Not when even the historical graveyards of Africatown, which should be sacred, have had to persist under threat of industrial appropriation, real estate development, and historical mishap. Not when even the dead, in these parts, cannot rest.
And yet there’s still enough of the threatened but persistent nucleus of a community known as Africatown for a documentary on the subject to minimize any sense of the surrounding waste. Africatown remains a place distinct from the pollutants of history, even as it’s tied to that history. The strategy of Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, by contrast, is to dive into the waste up front. There is no separation. The movie, shot in Delhi, is concerned with birds. Yet it opens with rats. Dogs. Flies. The clip-clopping of goats. Before this begins to feel like a too-familiar exercise in visual slumdogging through urban India, Sen takes to the sky.
All That Breathes is about a bird medic operation called Wildlife Rescue, which has for 20 years rehabilitated Delhi’s local population of black kites, carnivorous birds of prey with inviting eyes and, while in the care of this rescue, low-key temperaments. The clinic is run by Mohammad Saud and his brother Nadeem Shehzad, with the help of a younger employee, Salik Rehman. The brothers were once teenage bodybuilders. When they were younger, they found an injured kite and brought it to an animal hospital. The bird was turned away for being non-vegetarian, we’re told. They took the matter into their own hands, getting their start in the bird-saving business with a knowledge of musculature that they culled from bodybuilding magazines. Now, they treat more than 2,000 birds a year.
As portrayed by Sen’s documentary, this is a life equally defined by devotion and utter lack. Resources are slim. Families struggle financially; hopelessness over the plight of the kites abounds as more and more of them seem to fall out of the sky, injured. All That Breathes favors a poetic, almost dreamy style, filled with the kinds of ugly-beautiful images and thoughtfully dispatched voiceovers that can strip a narrative of outright propulsion in favor of mesmerizing us with ebbing ideas and moments of wonder. It occasionally strains. But the basic conflict at play, between the selflessness of these medics, the growing need for their work, and the utter folly of this mission — it can feel a little like standing in front of a moving train — gives it all an urgent undercurrent. The movie’s patience is hardly dispassionate. We’re watching people fall further into the grip of forces that are far beyond their control — all for a bird which, as the New York Times once described it, is “about as unloved as the pigeon.”
But they love these birds. They would have to. The men operate out of a basement workshop that’s prone to being flooded with sewage, in a city whose air pollution is overwhelming, under political conditions that seemingly grow more dangerous by the day. These are Muslim men living and working at a time when citizenship for Muslims in India has become a source of terrifying scrutiny and conflict. News reports and quiet discussions on the subject waft through the movie like so much discursive haze. The men wash the birds gently, by hand, exercising a delicacy at odds with everything else that Sen’s camera goes out of its way to capture. Most of our time in this film is spent slowly panning through the proceedings — a slowness appropriate not only to the men’s demeanors, but to the cramped realities of the space they’re in. Brownouts, arguments, broken equipment all slow down their work. All That Breathes allows us to see the private moments when none of this work seems worth it. When one man starts angling for an escape route, no one puts up much of a fight.
It’s about birds, but it isn’t about birds. Why are some groups so loathed by everyone else? In the case of the kites, it may be because they are bottom-feeders, picking away at carcasses and detritus, surviving off of what the rest of us have discarded. “Think of the city as a stomach,” one of the medics says. “And the kites are the microbiome of the gut. They eat away our filth.” You don’t need to love them in order to feel that they should survive. Nor do the kites need our permission, exactly, to persist. One of the lessons of All That Breathes is that the animals of India’s cities have all wisely evolved to make the most of their conditions, the kites included. Early on, the medics joke that if India were to be hit by a bomb, the kites would probably feast on their bodies. The men take for granted that the kites would survive. Just as tellingly, they take for granted that humanity would not.