When the 2023 Oscar nominations were announced last week, media outlets that traffic in awards-show coverage as a form of celebrity gossip flooded the internet with lists of high-profile snubs, headlined by Tom Cruise, Viola Davis, and Taylor Swift. Much harder to find was any thoughtful discussion of the year’s best nonfiction films, or of this year’s most egregious exclusion from the list of Best Documentary Feature nominees: Descendant, by Austin-based filmmaker Margaret Brown.

Descendant, executive produced by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and distributed by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions in collaboration with Netflix, tells the story of the 2019 underwater discovery of the slave ship Clotilda near the delta of the Mobile River in Alabama, where it was secretively burned in July 1860 after delivering the last known shipload of enslaved Africans to the Southern U.S. The Clotilda is the only shipwreck of a transatlantic slave vessel ever discovered in U.S. coastal waters. The residents of Mobile’s Africatown, many of them descended from people held as chattel on the Clotilda, feature prominently in Brown’s documentary. So does their case for reparations against the prominent white Meaher family of Mobile, whose ancestor Timothy Meaher owned the Clotilda, and which still owns much of the land around Africatown and leases it to heavy-polluting industrial tenants.

Brown, who has lived in Austin for much of her career, is the most accomplished Texan nonfiction filmmaker of her generation. That “Texan” qualifier is slippery, though, because, like many of Austin’s leading creatives, she’s a transplant. She arrived in town in the mid-nineties on an aimless post-college road trip (in a rusty Volvo alongside future Texas Monthly reporter Pamela Colloff, as the legend is told) and decided to stick around. Only one of Brown’s four feature films is on a Lone Star subject—her 2004 outlaw-country doc Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt. The rest of her features, including Descendant, set their sights just east of Texas’s coastal waters. The 2014 SXSW Grand Jury Award winner The Great Invisible examines the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, and the 2008 Sundance Film Festival entrant The Order of Myths—in many ways a prequel to Descendant—covers the highly segregated traditions of Mardi Gras in Mobile, where Brown was born and raised.

Descendant builds on the trust that Brown, who is white, first built with the Africatown community through the making of The Order of Myths. Brown centers the voices of Clotilda descendants like Emmett Lewis, who recalls his late father’s determination to pass down the oral history of his people’s passage from Africa and establishment as a free community after the Civil War. “I was actually told that was why I was born, was to know this story, because he wanted to pass that knowledge on to at least one person,” Lewis says as he walks through the graveyard where his father brought him as a boy.

Lewis is a descendant of Cudjoe Lewis, a Clotilda slave and patriarch figure in the settlement of Africatown, as well as a central character in Zora Neale Hurston’s nonfiction book Baracoon, about the Clotilda and its aftermath. Descendant makes the point that Clotilda survivors’ living memories of Africa were shared orally among the wider Black community after the Civil War, very possibly helping formerly enslaved people across the region understand more about where they came from.

Another key character in Descendant is Joycelyn Davis, who remembers playing as a child with the pollution that would float into her Africatown schoolyard from the nearby International Paper plant. “It looked like snow when we were on the playground,” Davis says. “I mean, we didn’t know.” Davis was diagnosed with cancer at age 39. According to a survey conducted by a local pastor, cancer rates are unusually high in Africatown.

The focus on the present issue of environmental racism keeps Descendant from being mired solely in past injustices. It also gives Brown the opportunity to show gorgeous aerial photography of industrial sites around Africatown, some of them owned by a Meaher family company. “It’s astounding that the contours of injustice from 1860 to 2019, in terms of who is doing harm unto whom . . . are still cleavaged along the same people—the descendants of the Meahers and the descendants of the Clotilda,” environmental organizer Ramsey Sprague tells the camera.

The Meahers did not respond to Brown’s requests to be part of the documentary, though they did release a statement calling for “a new chapter” after the film premiered. They have previously been reluctant to discuss the Clotilda, and there is evidence, explored in the film and affirmed by an archaeological team, that someone dynamited the wreck in recent decades, perhaps to prevent or delay its discovery.

The transatlantic slave trade was outlawed in the U.S. in 1808, although the institution of slavery remained legal in the South until the 1860s. Illegal slave importers post-1808 are sometimes treated as appealing folk icons by cities like New Orleans and Galveston, where the history of the pirate Jean Lafitte is a tourism cash cow, but such men acted criminally as well as immorally, in their own time as much as in ours. If, thanks to the shipwreck’s discovery, Timothy Meaher can be proven in court to have imported the Clotilda slaves in violation of the law, it may open up the possibility of civil action by Clotilda descendants against the Meaher clan. This is one of several angles of possible reparations for Africatown residents broached by Descendant.

Searching for reasons why Descendant was passed over by the Oscars, despite the presidential imprimatur and a string of other awards and recognitions—including inclusion as one of fifteen docs on the Oscars short list—one has to wonder if the case the film presents for reparations made some Academy voters uncomfortable. There’s no way of knowing, and surely the other nominees are deserving as well. But Brown’s accomplishment is unimpeachable, with a wide viewership on Netflix and a long future ahead for Descendant as a teaching tool and definitive record of a major discovery in American history.

“As a child, I thought the story was sad,” Emmett Lewis says of his ancestor Cudjoe, who was taken from his home country and forced into slavery, but who eventually gave rise to a resilient free community poised to seize its destiny with the Clotilda’s discovery. “Now . . . everything Cudjoe stood for he won, because we still here. It used to make me cry, but not no more. He won.”