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About two years ago, Samuel L. Jackson, the Hollywood titan, was presented with the idea of taking part in a documentary on the transatlantic slave trade.
Slavery, of course, wasn’t a new topic of study, 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 for them. It was a project that attempted to tell the story of slavery in part through the lens of sunken slave ships that never made it to their destination ̵
“This is a worthwhile story to tell,” Mr. Jackson said in an interview this week.
That story is now a six-part docuseries, “Enslaved,” which premiered last Monday on Epix, which will air a new episode every week over the next five weeks. The documentary will also start in the UK on BBC Two next month.
The series traces Mr. Jackson’s journey around the world as he uncovers elements of the history of the transatlantic slave trade. He is accompanied on parts of the journey by Afua Hirsch, a British journalist, and Simcha Jacobovici, a documentary director 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 slave ship wrecks along the ocean floor.
The series opens with Mr. Jackson traveling to Gabon, Central Africa, where he meets people from the Benga tribe, to whom he traced his ancestors through a DNA test.
I spoke with Mr. Jackson and his wife, an executive producer on the series, about their journey and also why this story seems urgent and relevant at this critical time. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Q: Why did you want to tell the story of the transatlantic slave trade?
SM. RICHARDSON JACKSON: I think most African Americans, if we could do that, we would at least try to trace the origins of our immigration here. This is something that lives in our spirit.
MR. JACKSON: We felt like it was a very different story. We heard stories of ships coming, where they were going, but we never talked about the ships that didn’t make it and what the consequences were, or even what profitability was for the people who sponsored the ships . Even though people didn’t make it and failed to use their bodies for servitude, they continue to profit from it.
Q: What do you think it adds to the narrative we know about trafficking and transatlantic slavery?
MR. JACKSON: The activity of our bodies continued. We were seen as a load in that particular spot before we got here and not as human beings. We were less than human, like throwing boxes or horses or whatever else was on board.
Q: How does this result fit into this larger discussion we are having with racial justice?
SM. RICHARDSON JACKSON: Especially with what’s going on it raises the question and allows us to actually see: “Look, it happened and we should discuss what happened.” This is an American story. It happened and cannot be swept under the carpet.
Q: Sam, I know you met the Benga in Gabon. How was that experience for you?
MR. JACKSON: First of all, discovering that I was part of a tribe that still existed was a revelation. And then get there and actually go to the part of the country they live in. They are actually a beach tribe.
SM. RICHARDSON JACKSON: Which I think has a lot to do with your love for the sea in your DNA.
MR. JACKSON: It was a very moving kind of thing to do to be in a group of people who welcomed me in a way that made me feel like I was coming home to a particular place, it’s familiar to look around and see a familiar look, like my uncles, my cousins. Having people that I’m connected to, in a genetic way, that helps me understand things about who I am or how I make specific types of decisions or what it means in terms of longevity, health, the things I’m attracted to.
SM. RICHARDSON JACKSON: It is the validation, the total validation of a place and a time of origin.
Q: Slavery is always a difficult subject. Why is it important for people to watch it?
MR. JACKSON: We hope that information and knowledge will give a greater understanding of who we are and, sometimes, why we protest and why things seem to be the same. The same reason people don’t let people forget the Holocaust, is that if you let things go and start forgetting it, they happen and they find a way to repeat themselves.
SM. RICHARDSON JACKSON: I think until we face it and allow it to happen and talk about it, we can’t hope to heal it in the void. Blacks who try to heal it on their own, we have always tried to heal it on our own and somehow pick it up and move on. But there is something about everyone being involved in trying to pick up that baggage and destroy it.
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