WASHINGTON — “Finding Us,” a 2022 documentary short film on the descendants of African Americans enslaved by Maryland Jesuits, will make its DC-area premiere on Friday.
Screening at the inaugural DC/DOX film festival, the 13-minute feature from director Kathryn Carlson gives voice to several descendants and a principal organizer in their identification and reunion over the past several years.
“We tell a lot in a short amount of time,” said Karran Harper Royal, the wife of a descendant who hails from the Mahoneys, one of the families connected to the GU272, as they are popularly known.
“This is the first time descendants are telling their own stories about their connection to Jesuit enslavement in a way that’s not mainstream media.”
The narrative of the Mahoneys—several of whom avoided being victim to the infamous 1838 slave sale to save Georgetown University—is one of several trails followed by descendants in their weekly virtual meetings, organized by Royal and attracting hundreds of attendees in recent years.
“The way we have all come together has been divinely inspired,” she said of the gatherings.
The descendants’ larger profile was raised exponentially by the New York Times in 2016, when Rachel L. Swarns covered their history in a bombshell article that was picked up by news outlets and advocates around the globe.
As the Jesuits began to speak of meaningful reconciliation and financial repair, the zeitgeist caught the attention of Carlson, creative director at SideXSide Studios.
“I spent like two and a half hours following weird links on YouTube and articles and into Instagram, and somehow I ended up at Karran's YouTube channel,” she said.
“I reached out to her five minutes later, she emailed me back, and we jumped on the phone for like three hours. I was hooked.”
Carlson says her focus quickly morphed from a focus on the possibility of Jesuit reparations to the community of descendants who were seeking out their family histories, often under the gaze of international speculation and intrigue.
Filming began on “Finding Us” in summer 2021, on-site where the Jesuits held hundreds of African Americans in bondage at plantations in southern Maryland—one of which re-entered the national spotlight earlier this year. The bulk of the film consists of interviews with Royal, as well as descendants Negest Rucker, Jerome Spears, and Kevin Porter.
“Jerome was deep in the DNA research. He is like a self-taught DNA detective, going through chromosome by chromosome trying to find correlations and ancestors and names and all these things,” Carlson noted.
“We have Kevin who is an archivist by trade. He has been to every single archive in Maryland researching the story. We have Negest, who is this in-depth, interesting researcher who knows so much narratively about her own ancestry. It's not just the DNA, it's not just the names, but their stories and how they lived.”
Royal notes that the film is heavy on symbolism, marking the places and faces of those reckoning with a long-hidden past that has generational ramifications.
“Rucker is shown standing in the forest where her ancestor Louisa Mahoney and [Louisa’s] mother Anna Mahoney, my husband's ancestor, hid out when the  sale occurred,” Royal said.
“Seeing that part of the film just kind of made chills run down my spine because it brought me right back to Anna and Louisa in that forest; it just so happens that the cicadas were in Maryland at that time…. You hear the cicadas in the forest and I was just thinking about what it must have been like for them.”
Early drafts of “Finding Us” were screened for descendants before it made its world premiere at the Annapolis Film Festival in March 2023, shortly before further screenings at the American Documentary and Animation Film Festival (AmDocs) in Palm Springs, California. These have coincided with the announcement this year of the first payouts from Georgetown’s Reconciliation Fund, and the release this month of “The 272,” a new book from Swarns on Maryland Jesuits’ slaveholding.
Swarns, at a book tour event in Washington on Wednesday, spoke positively of the new film and the multifaceted efforts to widen the understanding of the GU272.
“'I’m a word person, a print person, but I really do believe in the power of art, and all kinds of creative expression to reach people,” she said.
“I think that however you can reach people, I'm for that… It's inspiring to see the different ways in which people are trying to get this message across. It's important.”
Royal said that the intersecting narratives making their way into the public consciousness are an auspicious start to what she hopes is a stream of continued revelations and retellings.
“I think it’s good that any information about this history is coming out,” she said.
“I'm fine with additional information coming out in dribs and drabs as we move forward, because I know that there is a lot more of the story to be told.”
At DC/DOX on Friday, “Finding Us” will screen as part of the DC/FRAME division, meant to highlight filmmakers from the DC area like Carlson, who is based in Maryland. Therein, a further subcategory focuses on film subjects who have lost their home—“be it a physical, an emotional, or an ancestral home.” Carlson will participate in a Q&A after the sold-out showing, scheduled for 5:30pm ET at Eaton Workshop. (Stand-by seating will also be made available, if applicable.)
The documentary has also been accepted into the Richmond International Film Festival, set for September 26-October 1 in Virginia. Carlson also expressed hope that the film will eventually be picked up by an agency or online hosting partner.
“We're not sure exactly where it's going to go yet, but we're just hoping to find a good home for it,” she said.
“It will definitely be public one day.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.