• Thu. Mar 4th, 2021

Samuel Jackson Traces the History of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

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About two years ago, Samuel L. Jackson, the Hollywood titan, was presented with an idea to take part in a documentary about the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Slavery, of course, was not a new topic of scholarship, and Hollywood had already done a lot on the subject. But he discussed it with his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and something in particular stood out to them. This was a project attempting to tell the story of slavery in part through the lens of sunken slave ships that never reached their destination — ships that became mass graves of kidnapped Africans. It was a perspective, they felt, that could add to society’s understanding of the horrors of slavery.

“That is a worthwhile story to tell,” Mr. Jackson said in an interview this week.

That story is now a six-part docuseries, “Enslaved,” that premiered last Monday on Epix, which will air a new episode each week over the next five weeks. The documentary is also slated to begin in the United Kingdom on BBC Two next month.

The series traces Mr. Jackson’s journey across the globe as he uncovers elements of the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He is joined on parts of the journey by Afua Hirsch, a British journalist, and Simcha Jacobovici, a documentary filmmaker and journalist who directs the series. The story also follows Diving With a Purpose, an offshoot of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, as they search for wreckage of slave ships along the ocean bottom.

The series opens with Mr. Jackson traveling to Gabon, in Central Africa, where he meets people of the Benga tribe, which he traced his ancestry to through a DNA test.

I spoke with Mr. Jackson and his wife, an executive producer of the series, about their journey, and also why this story feels urgent and relevant in this critical moment. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: Why did you want to tell the story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade?

MS. RICHARDSON JACKSON: I think that most African-Americans, if we could do it, we would at least try to trace the ancestry of our immigration here. This is something that sort of lives in our spirit.

MR. JACKSON: We felt like it was a very different story. We’ve heard stories of ships coming over, where they were going, but we never talked about the ships that did not make it and what the consequences of that was, or even what the profitability of that was for the people that sponsored the ships. Even though people didn’t make it and they didn’t get to use their bodies for servitude, they still profit.

Q: What do you think that adds to the narrative that we know about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and enslavement?

MR. JACKSON: The business of our bodies carried on. We were viewed as cargo at that particular point before we got here and not human beings. We were less than human, same as tossing over some boxes or some horses or anything else that was on board.

Q: How does this coming out now fit into this larger discussion we’re having with racial justice?

ImageMr. Jackson in a scene from the documentary mini-series “Enslaved.”
Credit…AP Slave Ships Productions Ltd./Cornelia Street’s Ships Ltd./EPIX

MS. RICHARDSON JACKSON: Especially with what’s going on it raises the question and it allows us to actually see, “Look, this happened and we should be discussing that it happened.” This is an American story. It happened and it can’t be swept under the rug.

Q: Sam, I know you got to get acquainted with the Benga people in Gabon. What was that experience like for you?

MR. JACKSON: First of all, to find out that I was part of a tribe that was still in existence was a revelation. And then to get there and to actually go into the part of the country where they live. They’re actually a beach tribe.

MS. RICHARDSON JACKSON: Which I think has a lot to do with, in your DNA, your love of the sea.

MR. JACKSON: It was a very moving kind of thing to do to be in a group of people that welcomed me in a way that made me feel like I was coming home to a particular place, that’s familiar to look around at the faces and see a familial look, like my uncles, my cousins. To have people that I’m connected to, in a way that’s genetic, that helps me understand things about who I am or how I make specific kinds of decisions or what it means in terms of my longevity, my health, the things that I’m attracted to.

MS. RICHARDSON JACKSON: It’s validation, total validation of a place and a time of origin.

Q: Slavery is always a hard topic. Why is it important for people to watch this?

MR. JACKSON: We hope that the information and the knowledge give a greater understanding of who we are and sometimes why we protest and why things seem like they are the same. The same reason that people don’t allow people to forget the Holocaust, that if you let things go and start to forget that, they happen and they find a way to repeat themselves.

MS. RICHARDSON JACKSON: I think that until we deal with it and allow that it occurred and talk about it, we can’t hope to heal it in a vacuum. Black people trying to heal it for themselves, we always have tried to heal it for ourselves and sort of pick it up and keep going. But there’s something about everybody being involved in it, to try to pick up that baggage and destroy it.

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