Two powerful documentaries explore different aspects of Black history this week, in each case shedding light on misrepresented or under-covered chapters. Presented by Barack Obama’s company under its Netflix deal, “Descendant” examines the discovery of a long-sunk ship that brought enslaved Africans to Alabama, while “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” reclaims a figure whose legacy was too often characterized as the product of tired feet.
“Descendant” tells the story of the Clotilda, the last known ship to convey Africans to America in 1860, before being intentionally scuttled in the Mobile river to conceal the crime. The history of that period echoes through to the present, given that relatives of those who endured that voyage are among the interested parties when remnants of the vessel – long the stuff of local legend – were located in 2019.
Directed by Margaret Brown, “Descendant” brings the issue of reparations into a stark focus that’s lost in the course of these discussions, illustrating this painful past through the thoughts and feelings of those living in the area today.
A bit slow-moving at first, the history gives way to a thoughtful conversation about how best to remember this history and honor its victims, while simultaneously highlighting the modern science surrounding identifying the ship and, thanks to DNA, potentially linking its captives to their descendants.
Although “Descendants” plays on the more prominent platform via Netflix, “Rosa Parks” is more compelling in a different way, contemplating the story of another daughter of Alabama – and how her contribution to the civil-rights movement was downplayed because she was a woman, while her image was “distorted and misunderstood.”
The film opens with Parks featured on the quiz show “To Tell the Truth,” where the celebrity panelists struggle to identify her, making vaguely condescending assumptions about her quiet dignity.
Yet as Parks’ great nephew, Lonnie McCauley, notes, Parks was hardly an idle bystander in the movement but rather “a soldier from birth” – points reinforced by both interviews with her and portions of her writing as read by LisaGay Hamilton.
“I’ve never gotten used to being a public person,” Parks says, while noting that in all her talks with reporters through the years regarding the act of silent defiance that launched the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 – refusing to go to the back of the bus to give her seat to a White patron – she “never told anyone” it was because her feet were tired.
Like “Descendant,” directors Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton connect Parks’ story directly to the present, as historians note that the statue commemorating her that sits in the Capitol was dedicated in 2013, the same year the Supreme Court invalidated key parts of the Voting Rights Act, a signature accomplishment of the activism that Parks championed.
Perhaps foremost, “Mrs. Rosa Parks” highlights the selflessness of its subject and seeks to provide a detailed portrait of a woman who, through the vagaries of history, was frequently reduced to a symbol. “She didn’t want the awards. She didn’t want the money. She didn’t want the fame,” McCauley states.
Parks, rather, wanted – indeed devoted her life to fighting for – justice and equality. And as these two projects make clear, the struggle for that continues.
“Descendant” premieres October 21 in select theaters and on Netflix.
“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” premieres October 19 on Peacock.