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‘Descendant’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

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‘Descendant’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Descendant, Margaret Brown’s impressionistic documentary about the last known slave ship to arrive on America’s shores and its legacy in an historic Alabama community, is an achievement. The capacious and riveting film arrives at an unsettling moment in U.S. politics: Across the country, historical suppression is being recodified while parents and politicians debate what the next generation will remember of the nation’s past. Brown’s film — generously guided by its subjects — humbly offers a reminder of what is really at stake.

The Clotilda docked in Mobile, Alabama, in 1860, decades after it was illegal to continue importing enslaved people and five years before chattel slavery’s legal abolition. The enterprise was funded by Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher, who partnered with Captain William Foster. Foster kidnapped more than 100 Africans from their homelands. After disembarking in the States, he ordered for the Clotilda to be burned and sunk — destroying any evidence of the duo’s illicit deed.

Descendant

The Bottom Line

A riveting impressionistic doc.

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Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Director: Margaret Brown
Screenwriters: Margaret Brown, Dr. Kern Jackson


1 hour 48 minutes

Those brought aboard the Clotilda were enslaved until 1865, when the Civil War and ratification of the 13th amendment ended chattel slavery. After a failed attempt to return to Africa, the survivors founded their own town — Africatown — a few miles outside of Mobile. The small community flourished and its residents passed down stories about their arrival to their children. Within this town, the lore about the Clotilda, the Meahers and the Fosters never died. In 1927, an enterprising anthropologist and writer named Zora Neale Hurston travelled to Alabama to interview Cudjo Lewis, one of the ship’s last living survivors. She compiled his life story into a book, but because publishers feared it would alienate readers, Barracoon was not published until 2018. A year later, in 2019, the schooner Clotilda was found.

Descendant chronicles the events leading up to the ship’s discovery and tries, with care, to examine its impact on the current residents of Africatown, whose history has for so long been ignored or dismissed by outsiders. The film is not the first investigation into this history, nor will it be the last — a book about the Clotilda written by journalist Ben Raines will be published at the end of this month and National Geographic will release its own documentary special in February — but it might be one of the more intimate.

Water — meditative, spiritual, haunting — guides Descendant, which opens with Kamau Sadiki, a diver who works with the Smithsonian, rowing on a river. “It brings about a sense of peace and tranquility,” he says of water. “I want to stay connected to the water as much as possible.” Sadiki, who is involved in the ship’s excavation efforts, bookends the film, which closes with a glimpse of his efforts to get Africatown’s youngest residents into diving so they too can get closer to the sea.

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But before Descendent, which was executive produced by Questlove (also a descendant of the Clotilda), gets to the next generation, it meanders through the present and makes pitstops through the past. The film’s loose structure allows it subjects — residents of Africatown and direct descendants of Clotilda survivors like Emmett Lewis, Jocelyn Davis and Lorna Woods — to steer the narrative’s direction. They speak with candor and a fierce protectiveness about their ancestors, whom they grew up learning about. Their histories, however fractured, have left them with a clarity of vision and purpose. For many of the residents, finding the ship is less about proving their story — which they know to be true regardless of who believes them — and more about filling in the gaps of their own archives.

It’s a wonder to watch the town’s residents recount their ancestral legacy. And it’s even more moving to have those stories supported by rare footage, like the videos Hurston took of Cudjo Lewis during their interviews. These moving images, some of which are provided by folklorist and the film’s co-writer Dr. Kern Jackson, are a powerful testament to the community’s survival. Jackson walks viewers through some of the archival footage, his perspective encouraging a different way of seeing. “Look at how regal she looks,” he says of a video of Martha West-Davis, an elder Africatown member. See how these individuals talk about their past, witness the vastness of their archive, he urges.

These observations make familiar, damning questions about whose history gets told more acutely felt. The evidence of America’s history is all around, it just depends on where you look and who you ask. Many “whos” haunt the story of the Clotilda, most prominently the Meaher family (who could not be reached for comment) and the Fosters (whose descendant makes a brief appearance near the end). Descendant grapples with the wealth and power these white families still wield and deftly juxtaposes them against the conditions of the enslaved peoples’ descendants.

Despite the generations of people who have lived there and made the community, Africatown does not fully belong to these residents. Over the years, the area around the town has been leased by politicians to corporations more interested in bottom lines than people. The consequences of this encroachment are dire: poor air quality, noise pollution, cancer diagnoses.

When the ship is finally discovered — on Meaher property no less — questions of recourse move from the shadows to the center. In a country that extracts profits from anything, including a history it denies, Africatown’s residents are aware that people stand to make a lot of money from the Clotilda’s discovery — people who rarely showed a vested interest in its existence. When it comes to answers, Brown lets the residents speak for and among themselves. The director’s gaze, appropriately unobtrusive to begin with, all but disappears when the community members discuss how to respond to the attention.

Reparations are discussed seriously (another of the film’s achievements) and residents debate the specifics, but they agree on one truth: They do not want to be a part of any initiatives; they want to lead them. Descendant ends on a hopeful note, with a firm eye toward the community’s future generation, tenderly guided by their elders. No doubt that future projects about Africatown and the Clotilda will come from within.

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

Hitting the three-quarter-century mark usually means a retirement home, a nursing facility, or if you’re lucky to be blessed with relatively good health and savings to match, living in a gated community in Arizona or Florida.

For Sylvester Stallone, however, it means something else entirely: starring in the first superhero-centered film of his decades-long career in the much-delayed Samaritan. Unfortunately for Stallone and the audience on the other side of the screen, the derivative, turgid, forgettable results won’t get mentioned in a career retrospective, let alone among the ever-expanding list of must-see entries in a genre already well past its peak.

For Stallone, however, it’s better late than never when it involves the superhero genre. Maybe in getting a taste of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with his walk-on role in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel several years ago, Stallone thought anything Marvel can do, I can do even better (or just as good in the nebulous definition of the word).

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The property Stallone and his team found for him, Samaritan, a little-known graphic novel released by a small, almost negligible, publisher, certainly takes advantage of Stallone’s brute-force physicality and his often underrated talent for near-monosyllabic brooding (e.g., the Rambo series), but too often gives him to little do or say as the lone super-powered survivor, the so-called “Samaritan” of the title, of a lifelong rivalry with his brother, “Nemesis.” Two brothers entered a fire-ravaged building and while both were presumed dead, one brother did survive (Stallone’s Joe Smith, a garbageman by day, an appliance repairman by night).

In the Granite City of screenwriter Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room, Season of the Witch), the United States, and presumably the rest of the world, teeters on economic and political collapse, with a recession spiraling into a depression, steady gigs difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, and the city’s neighborhoods rocked by crime and violence. No one’s safe, not even 13-year-old Sam (Javon Walker), Joe’s neighbor.

When he’s not dodging bullies connected to a gang, he’s falling under the undue influence of Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), a low-rent gang leader with an outsized ego and the conviction that he and only he can take on Nemesis’s mantle and along with that mantle, a hammer “forged in hate,” to orchestrate a Bane-like plan to plunge the city into chaos and become a wealthy power-broker in the process.

Schut’s woefully underwritten script takes a clumsy, haphazard approach to world-building, relying on a two-minute animated sequence to open Samaritan while a naive, worshipful Sam narrates Samaritan and Nemesis’s supposedly tragic, Cain and Abel-inspired backstory. Schut and director Julius Avery (Overlord) clumsily attempt to contrast Sam’s childish belief in messiah-like, superheroic saviors stepping in to save humanity from itself and its own worst excesses, but following that path leads to authoritarianism and fascism (ideas better, more thoroughly explored in Watchmen and The Boys).

While Sam continues to think otherwise, Stallone’s superhero, 25 years past his last, fatal encounter with his presumably deceased brother, obviously believes superheroes are the problem and not the solution (a somewhat reasonable position), but as Samaritan tracks Joe and Sam’s friendship, Sam giving Joe the son he never had, Joe giving Sam the father he lost to street violence well before the film’s opening scene, it gets closer and closer to embracing, if not outright endorsing Sam’s power fantasies, right through a literally and figuratively explosive ending. Might, as always, wins regardless of how righteous or justified the underlying action.

It’s what superhero audiences want, apparently, and what Samaritan uncritically delivers via a woefully under-rendered finale involving not just unconvincing CGI fire effects, but a videogame cut-scene quality Stallone in a late-film flashback sequence that’s meant to be subversively revelatory, but will instead lead to unintentional laughter for anyone who’s managed to sit the entirety of Samaritan’s one-hour and 40-minute running time.

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Samaritan is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

Samaritan

Cast
  • Sylvester Stallone
  • Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton
  • Pilou Asbæk

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Matt Shakman Is In Talks To Direct ‘Fantastic Four’

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According to a new report, Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct the upcoming MCU project, Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios has been very hush-hush regarding Fantastic Four to the point where no official announcements have been made other than the film’s release date. No casting news or literally anything other than rumors has been released regarding the project. We know that Fantastic Four is slated for release on November 8th, 2024, and will be a part of Marvel’s Phase 6. There are also rumors that the cast of the new Fantastic Four will be announced at the D23 Expo on September 9th.

Fantastic Four is still over two years from release, and we assume we will hear more news about the project in the coming months. However, the idea of the Fantastic Four has already been introduced into the MCU. John Krasinski played Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The cameo was a huge deal for fans who have been waiting a long time for the Fantastic Four to enter the MCU. When Disney acquired Twenty Century Fox in 2019 we assumed that the Fox Marvel characters would eventually make their way into the MCU. It’s been 3 years and we already have had an X-Men and Fantastic Four cameo – even if they were from another universe.

Deadline is reporting that Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct Fantastic Four. Shakman served as the director for Wandavision and has had an extensive career. He directed two episodes of Game of Thrones and an episode of The Boys, and he had a long stint on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There is nothing official yet, but Deadline’s sources say that Shakman is currently in talks for the job and things are headed in the right direction.

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To be honest, I was a bit more excited when Jon Watts was set to direct. I’m sure Shakman is a good director, but Watts proved he could handle a tentpole superhero film with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Wandavision was good, but Watts’ style would have been perfect for Fantastic Four. The film is probably one of the most anticipated films in Marvel’s upcoming slate films and they need to find the best person they can to direct. Is that Matt Shakman? It could be, but whoever takes the job must realize that Marvel has a lot riding on this movie. The other Fantastic Four films were awful and fans deserve better. Hopefully, Marvel knocks it out of the park as they usually do. You can see for yourself when Fantastic Four hits theaters on November 8th, 2024.

Film Synopsis: One of Marvel’s most iconic families makes it to the big screen: the Fantastic Four.

Source: Deadline

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Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase Star in ‘Zombie Town’ Mystery Teen Romancer (Exclusive)

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Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase have entered Zombie Town, a mystery teen romancer based on author R.L. Stine’s book of the same name.

The indie, now shooting in Ontario, also stars Henry Czerny and co-teen leads Marlon Kazadi and Madi Monroe. The ensemble cast includes Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch of the Canadian comedy show Kids in the Hall.

Canadian animator Peter Lepeniotis will direct Zombie Town. Stine’s kid’s book sees a quiet town upended when 12-year-old Mike and his friend, Karen, see a horror movie called Zombie Town and unexpectedly see the title characters leap off the screen and chase them through the theater.

Zombie Town will premiere in U.S. theaters before streaming on Hulu and then ABC Australia in 2023.

“We are delighted to bring the pages of R.L. Stine’s Zombie Town to the screen and equally thrilled to be working with such an exceptional cast and crew on this production. A three-time Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award winner with book sales of over $500 million, R.L. Stine has a phenomenal track record of crafting stories that engage and entertain audiences,” John Gillespie, Trimuse Entertainment founder and executive producer, said in a statement.

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Executive producers are Trimuse Entertainment, Toonz Media Group, Lookout Entertainment, Viva Pictures and Sons of Anarchy actor Kim Coates.  

Paco Alvarez and Mark Holdom of Trimuse negotiated the deal to acquire the rights to Stine’s Zombie Town book.

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