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Margaret Brown on Reparations, Justice, and Healing From the Legacy of Slavery

Margaret Brown on Reparations, Justice, and Healing From the Legacy of Slavery

This week on “The Tent,” Daniella sits down with award-winning filmmaker Margaret Brown to discuss her 2022 documentary, “Descendant.”

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Award-winning documentary filmmaker Margaret Brown joins Daniella to discuss her 2022 documentary, “Descendant.” Their conversation provides insight into how to tell accurate, impactful stories about challenging historical events and what reparations and healing can look like for different communities. Daniella and Colin also discuss the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police and the upcoming State of the Union address.


Daniella Gibbs Léger: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to “The Tent,” your place for politics, policy, and progress. I’m Daniella Gibbs Léger.

Colin Seeberger: And I’m Colin Seeberger. Daniella, I heard you had an exciting interview this week with a filmmaker.

Gibbs Léger: That is correct. As we kick off Black History Month, I sat down with Margaret Brown, the director of several documentaries on racial inequality in the American South, including her most recent film, “Descendant,” which is on Netflix. It’s an important and timely conversation on Black history, healing from slavery, and ways to combat racial inequity. So, stick around for that. But first, we’ve got to get to some news.

Seeberger: Listen, MAGA Republicans have been filling up my news feed with nonsensical investigations of President Biden and other useless political antics, like targeting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN). I hope that’s not what you’re talking about, because I just don’t have time for the House of chaos, Daniella.

Gibbs Léger: Do not worry about that, Colin. We’re not going to talk about Hunter Biden’s emails today, for example—thank goodness. I do, unfortunately, want to talk about a big story that, like you said, MAGA Republicans are completely ignoring. And that is the tragic death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police. There was a lot to process over the last week. Police bodycam footage was released showing Tyre Nichols brutally beaten to death by Memphis police officers during a traffic stop—a traffic stop that I must add is still questionable about if it was even legit. And there were lots of great posts on Twitter about remembering Tyre as he lived, and not as he died. And he was a skateboarder, an amateur photographer—I’d say a really good one from some of the things that I’ve seen—and a FedEx worker, and he was described by everyone who knew him as joyful and loving. Now, what was chilling to me is that the officers involved in this beating, they knew they were being recorded because their body cameras were turned on. And they still beat him to death. So, five police officers were initially fired and charged with murder, and two more have been suspended. And two EMTs and a lieutenant were also fired after it was revealed that those EMTs showed up to the scene and did nothing.

Seeberger: It’s awful, Daniella. These stories are just horrific. And the brutal slaughter of Tyre Nichols, it just didn’t need to happen. While the officers involved were Black, we should be clear that there is still a racial element to this violence. And it’s what we see happen in case after case after case. These kinds of things don’t happen to white people at the same measurable scale as they do to Black Americans.

Gibbs Léger: Right, period.

Seeberger: Time and time again, we see racial profiling of Black people in the name of “public safety.” But it doesn’t make us safer. It strips Black people of the safety they deserve while driving, or going to the convenience store, or taking their kids to school, or going to the playground, and just going about their everyday lives. We can’t have safety and justice for all in this country if we don’t have meaningful policy change. And that’s why we need federal accountability legislation for police like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that was proposed in 2021 but was blocked by MAGA Republicans and Sen. Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina, especially—he was heavily involved with brokering that negotiation—because otherwise, we’re just going to continue to see the kind of outrageous slaughtering and dehumanizing of everyday Americans who are just trying to go about their everyday lives.

Gibbs Léger: You know, even without MAGA Republicans, though, there is more federal action that can be taken up on last year’s executive order on policing. That includes federal funding to establish programs that curtail racially biased traffic enforcement and invest in the things that prevent crime before it happens, like, I don’t know, access to health care, housing, education, and jobs: things that Republicans don’t want to talk about. The DOJ [U.S. Department of Justice] can also establish stricter use of force standards; incentivize states and cities to meet federal standards; and create greater transparency around police misconduct. And a lot of this does lie at the local level. So, states absolutely can take action on their own to make investments in crime prevention programs and support other policies that will help stop the overpolicing of communities of color. I’m hoping that we can actually get something done this time, because it is crazy to me that we could not get anything passed after the murder of George Floyd, due in large part to MAGA Republicans. So, let’s move on to something a little lighter. The State of the Union is next week.

Seeberger: That’s right. That’s right. It’s a big week in Washington. I am, for one, as a political geek—I am super excited for it. I like all the pre-coverage early in the night. I make a special dinner to settle in for State of the Union. But what I’m also really excited to hear about is President Biden talking about all the amazing accomplishments we’ve made over the course of the past year, especially, as we have kind of rebounded from the pandemic and are looking to chart kind of a new path forward for America. So, I’m excited to hear him talk about all the accomplishments we’ve made. The policies are starting to kind of take effect here, like we’ve got the $35 insulin cap that millions of seniors are now able to take advantage of and saving hundreds and hundreds of dollars every year. We’ve got tax credits going out the door for clean energy technologies that families can save money and bring down their energy costs by taking advantage of these incentives.

There’s so much more, Daniella. I mean, you think about the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, the infrastructure bill—all of these things taken together offer so much promise to where we’re going as a country. They really chart a new kind of modern, forward-looking vision for our country, because no parent should have to take their kid to the gas station in order to be able to access Wi-Fi so they can do their homework. No commuters should have to spend two hours in traffic going back and forth to work every day, sacrificing time that they want to spend with their families. And no person should have to go [with] the indignity of not having health care because they can’t afford it. And we’ve made so many strides in all of these policy areas. And that’s really what’s helping us make such progress in the transitioning from economic recovery, one of the swiftest, most robust in the world. You compare it to the Great Recession, and we recovered all of our jobs in a matter of a couple of years and have been adding more. We’ve added more than 11 million jobs since Joe Biden took office. And that’s why unemployment is at a 53-year low. And we just we have so much potential that if we don’t get bogged down in political stunts like MAGA Republicans want us to, we can continue to chart a better path forward for our country.

Gibbs Léger: Yeah, and I think this is also a chance for him to really draw that contrast between all the great implementation work that you’ve discussed and what the MAGA Republican vision is. They want to tank the global economy and send us into a tailspin so they can cut Social Security and Medicare. That would raise taxes on things like groceries, housing, utilities for everyday Americans. And let’s not forget, they still want to tear down our democracy and rip away our rights and freedoms. So, I personally will be opening up a nice big bag of SkinnyPop to watch the State of the Union. That’s how I celebrate.

Seeberger: Not kettle corn.

Gibbs Léger: No, not kettle corn, Colin—gosh—gross.

Seeberger: Well, like I said, I think that President Biden should declare forcefully the State of the Union is strong. And it’s going to be brighter because of the progress that we’ve made. Yet there is still work that needs to be done. We talked about police reform earlier. But we also need to move forward on tech regulation, shoring up our judiciary, and so much more.

Gibbs Léger: Well, I feel much more prepared for the State of the Union now that I know what I’ll be looking for and listening for. And I know we’ll be chatting more about it next week. But our listeners should definitely tell us what snacks they’ll be eating while they watch the State of the Union.

Seeberger: For sure. If there’s anything else you’d like us to cover on the pod, just hit us up on Twitter @TheTentPod, that’s @TheTentPod.

Gibbs Léger: And stick around for my interview with Margaret Brown in just a beat.

[Musical transition]

Gibbs Léger: Margaret Brown is a director and producer whose award-winning documentary work examines the American South. Her most recent film, “Descendant,” documents the search for and historic discovery of the Clotilda, the last known ship to arrive in the United States illegally carrying enslaved Africans in 1860. The film is set in Africatown, a small community in Mobile, Alabama, formed by the descendants of the Clotilda. It won a Special Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is now available on Netflix. Margaret, thanks so much for joining us on “The Tent.”

Margaret Brown: Oh, I’m so happy to be here.

Gibbs Léger: So, to start, let’s talk about your documentary film “Descendent.” Can you tell us what this film is about and how you came across this story?

Brown: Well, I’m from Mobile, Alabama, and the Clotilda is the last slave ship known to ever be discovered in the United States. And it was confirmed as we were making the film that it was indeed the Clotilda, and it was found in 2019 while we were shooting. But I had known of the story because I made a film 15 years ago called “The Order of Myths,” which is about segregated Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama. And there’s a white queen and a Black queen, and the white queen—as we started filming, my mother told me, “Oh, the family—the Meaher family—that the white queen’s from, they are thought to have brought the last slave ship to the United States.” And I kind of filed it away. I didn’t know how important that fact would be until after Mardi Gras when I was filming with Stephanie Lucas, the Black Mardi Gras queen, and her grandparents. And her grandfather, Barry Malone, mentioned as we were talking that he was descended from those enslaved people who came over on the Clotilda. And I looked at the cinematographer, and the film kind of shifted underneath us. So, that’s sort of how I came to the story. It wasn’t something I learned about growing up in high school or middle school. I didn’t learn about the story in schools.

Gibbs Léger: It’s truly fascinating. And in the film, we really see stark differences between the way the Black community of Africatown and the surrounding white community of Mobile, Alabama, told the story of the Clotilda and its descendants. And this is a theme in many of your films. So, what differences have you observed between the way white and Black communities discuss slavery and race as a part of their history, to the extent that they’re all discussing it?

Brown: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think it’s monolithic in that way. But certainly, there was a white silence around a lot of the story of the Clotilda that I encountered. When I was making “The Order of Myths,” it was about Mardi Gras, so a lot of white people talked to me. But then when I came back years later and wanted to talk about this … When the ship was found, it brings up the question of reparations. And I think that when that comes into the conversation, there’s a lot of silence around it in white communities. I mean, certainly not silence with everybody. There are white people in the film. But many people, including the mayors that I tried to speak with, just did not want to talk. And in the Black community, there’s been a lot of fear of—I mean, we talk about it in the movie, but the community was often silent, because there was fear of being lynched for generations. And so, it’s a story that’s passed down orally because it’s not something you can say.

Gibbs Léger: Right, or it’s not something that’s written. And you know, in a time when we’re seeing radical politicians attempting to control historical narratives, whether it’s the scrubbing of content from African American studies classes like Gov. [Ron] DeSantis (R) is trying to do in Florida, or taking books off our library shelves that teach the horrors of slavery and racism, what do you think we can learn from these differences that you’ve highlighted?

Brown: Well, it’s really interesting: Right now, in Mobile, [there] is a film festival that Joycelyn Davis—who’s in the film—she is having a film festival with all of the films, “Descendant” included, that feature the Africatown community. And they’re showing the film in local schools in Mobile and posting pictures on the internet. And it’s hard to—right when the film came out on Netflix, there were people who were posting that they were showing it in their classrooms and showing the schoolchildren raising their hands and talking about it. And one of the people who is one of the local activists said, “You know, teachers could get fired for that. Is that a good thing to encourage people to post pictures of their classrooms, showing fifth graders and middle schoolers the film?” And I just think it’s crazy that we’re in a world where that would even be a question.

Gibbs Léger: The discovery of the Clotilda raised new questions for its descendants about what justice, healing, and reconciliation might look like in their community and beyond. At a time when we’re seeing such blatant examples of racism in our economic system; in our criminal justice system; and of course, on our streets, with the murders of innocent Black people like Tyre Nichols at the hands of police, what are some ways we can move forward towards justice, healing, and reconciliation as a society continuing to deal with racial injustice?

Brown: I mean, that’s a huge question, but I’m going to talk about the community in Africatown. I don’t know how many people have seen the film who are listening, but there’s a scene when, about a week after the search team comes down and says, yes, the ship we’ve been looking at, we actually can confirm this is the Clotilda, and they unveil a portrait, a rendering of what it would look like. And I think it’s NatGeo [National Geographic]—their team—when they unveil the portrait, I think they think, “Oh, the community’s going to be so happy.” But the portrait is a pretty traumatic image. And they sort of clap and then it fades away. And you see the reaction of all the people’s faces as they look at this. And it’s a very sort of grave moment. And Kamau Sadiki, one of the divers who worked on finding the ship, who is an African American diver, he goes in front of the group and he’s crying. And he says to the group of descendants and community members, “You need to define what justice means to you.” Right now, there’s a question. There’s a conversation in the Africatown community about how they, as a group, want to interpret what reparations means, what justice looks like for them. And I guess for me, as I’ve watched this conversation, it’s made me like really respect sort of these group dynamics, like— “Democracy with a lowercase ‘d,’” is what Kern Jackson in the movie likes to say— just watch people have these deep, honest conversations about what that would look like in the community, what they want to ask for, what feels just.

And I know, I’m kind of giving you a circuitous answer, but I think this is a conversation that has to be complicated. It has to be in the details, because I think it sort of is going to depend on who you ask. Like, I don’t think it’s the same for every community. I think what justice looks like in Africatown is probably different than what justice looks like—there’s a reparations conversation happening in Evanston, [Illinois]. I bet that would be a different conversation. I think these things are local and specific. And I think in Africatown, if I was going to speak to that, I think that is about who owns the story? Who is getting to profit off the tourism dollars that are coming. Who is the one who gets to tell the story? There’s tour guides coming in from other places. Is it their place to tell the story?

I mean, that involves me, too. I am a white woman, and I am the one who directed this film. And I think it’s been a very big conversation on how the film is made. I didn’t know when I started that there would be such white silence. Since the Meaher family was in my other movie, I thought—a documentary often sort of tells you what it is. And I thought going in, I was going to have something that would look at whiteness as much as this film looks at Blackness. I was wrong. And I made a decision to continue making the film, but it was a pretty hard decision. And I decided ultimately to continue because I was the one that was there doing it. I also didn’t think it would be right to stop. And I also have access that other people don’t have. But it was a complicated decision. And I brought on, pretty early on, other partners who were Black people who were creatives that could help me make sure I didn’t make a story just for white people. I made a story that’s for everyone and is a healing story, and a story that doesn’t shy away from hard things. So, I guess that my roundabout way of answering your question is, I think it’s a local as well as a national conversation.

I would add that there are a lot of alliances from outside groups with the Africatown community. The impact campaign that’s going on there is multipronged. There are many different activist groups in Africatown that are parts of storytelling and historical activism. There’s also environmental activism. And I think that only amplifies the work that’s already happening. We have some really great partners.

Gibbs Léger: So, I think that’s a great answer. And it answered my next question about grassroots action. So, it seems like, from your perspective, that having folks on the ground in the community, they’re the ones who are starting that conversation. And what advice would you give for other storytellers like yourself who—Black, white, or different—who are not from a community but they’re coming in because they want to tell the story and they have the resources to do so, but it’s not their story to tell? What advice would you give them?

Brown: Again, I think it’s a really complicated answer. One thing I’ve noticed since I finished this film: Other white filmmakers have approached me with different—I really want to tell this story, but I’m not from this community, what should I do? And I really think it depends on the circumstances. I don’t think there’s just one answer. But I would say, come forward with humility. There’s trust. I think, honestly—I’m not an essentialist—I think a lot of it is about trust, like, does the community trust the storyteller? But I also think it depends on the humility of the filmmaker. I think you have to—if you’re going to tell a story about someone else and it’s not your culture—you really have to listen and let them lead. I had a creative producer who’s a really good friend of mine, who is Black, and we just had an agreement really early on that we were going to be really honest with each other, as honest as we could be, because we also knew our friendship was at stake. And, yeah, I just think there has to be brutal honesty and willingness to have extremely difficult conversations.

Gibbs Léger: So, as you know, it’s the beginning of Black History Month. And I think this is a very appropriate and important time to be having this discussion and an apt time to watch this film, if any of our listeners haven’t seen it already. So, with that in mind, what’s the biggest thing you want viewers to take away from the film?

Brown: I think one thing that Anderson Flynn says toward the end of the film, but not at the end, is he goes to what is colloquially called the “lynching museum” in Montgomery. He goes on opening day, and he goes through the exhibit. And then after he goes through, he looks at the crowd of people leaving and posing for pictures. And he goes, for some people, this is just a form of entertainment. But what do you do when you leave? Like, the way you feel moved by this … Because people were crying, and people were upset. And you don’t really see that in the image in the movie, but we did see that when we traveled through the exhibit. We saw people sobbing. So how do they bring their emotion to be that change? And I hope people who are moved by this film, they don’t just watch it and forget it, they think about, how does this change how I feel about reparations? How does this change how I treat others? How does this affect me on both a micro and macro level? How can I get involved? That’s what I hope.

Gibbs Léger: Well, that is a great way to end this interview. And Margaret Brown, I want to thank you so much for making this film and all of your other projects. And thank you for joining us on “The Tent.”

Brown: Thank you so much for having me.

[Musical transition]

Gibbs Léger: As always, thanks for listening. Please be sure to go back and check out previous episodes. Folks, I know you’re going to be disappointed, but neither Colin nor I watched “The Bachelor” this week. So, we’ll catch up next week on that. So, let’s talk about football. And it appears that one Tom Brady has actually decided to retire—”for realsies” this time, though.

Seeberger: I’m skeptical.

Gibbs Léger: Are you really? I don’t know. He looked real tired in that video.

Seeberger: I mean, the man has had a year, if we can say. I was just happy that the conversation quickly turned from who will be partaking in this year’s Super Bowl to Tom Brady, who ended his career on a high note by being beat by my very impressive Dallas Cowboys, actually eking out a win in the playoffs.

Gibbs Léger: Boy. I guess congrats for that, Colin, sure. I mean, if that that victory helps speed the retirement of Tom … I guess it’s fine. Because Tom Brady has lost three Super Bowls. He’s got a lot of wins, I got that.

Seeberger: To who, Daniella? To who?

Gibbs Léger: Let me see if I can recollect who the first two losses were to—oh, that’s right, the New York football Giants. Oh, yeah, that’s right. We are his kryptonite. Actually, I would say the NFC East is his kryptonite, because then the third Super Bowl he lost was to the Eagles, and then the Cowboys just took him out. So, I think we can all agree all of us “NFC Beast” fans can agree that we’re better than Tom Brady.

Seeberger: Full stop. No arguments here.

Gibbs Léger: Full stop. That’s it. Are you rooting for anybody in the Super Bowl?

Seeberger: Mahomes, man.

Gibbs Léger: Yeah, I kinda don’t care. Like, I’m really in it for the “Kelce Bowl,” because who doesn’t love Travis Kelce?

Seeberger: I can appreciate.

Gibbs Léger: And I’m becoming a fan. Yeah, there’s lots to appreciate there. You know, he’s very talented at what he does. And I’m beginning to appreciate his brother on the Eagles, and I just think it’s really cute. So, we have the first Super Bowl played where both quarterbacks are Black and where there are two brothers playing against each other. Now, they will not be on the field at the same time because they both play for the offense. But I think it’s great and very cute, and I guess I don’t know who I’m rooting for yet. Sorry, Eagles fans. You don’t get my support automatically just because you’re an NFC East team. That’s not the way this works.

Seeberger: Absolutely not.

Gibbs Léger: Alright, on that note. Take care, everyone. Continue to take care of yourselves. Get boosted. I mean, should I stop saying get boosted at this point? I’m assuming everyone who’s listening to this podcast has been boosted. Follow whatever your local health authorities are telling you to do. Be well and we’ll talk next week.

Seeberger: Bye!

Gibbs Léger: “The Tent” is a podcast from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s hosted by me, Daniella Gibbs Léger, and co-hosted by Colin Seeberger. Erin Phillips is our lead producer. Kelly McCoy is our supervising producer. And Sam Signorelli is our digital producer. You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Daniella Gibbs Léger

Executive Vice President, Communications and Strategy


Colin Seeberger

Senior Adviser, Communications

Erin Phillips

Broadcast Media Manager

Kelly McCoy

Senior Director of Broadcast Communications

Sam Signorelli

Policy and Outreach Associate, Government Affairs



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