‘Enslaved’: Samuel L. Jackson on His Global Trek to Connect His Past with His Present

The actor reflects on his new docuseries, which observes the Transatlantic slave trade via the lens of sunken slave ships that became mass graves.
Samuel L. Jackson poses for a photo on the red carpet at the grand opening of Tyler Perry Studios on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Atlanta. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Invision/AP)
Samuel L. Jackson poses for a photo on the red carpet at the grand opening of Tyler Perry Studios
Elijah Nouvelage/Invision/AP

Currently airing on EPIX is “Enslaved,” a Samuel L. Jackson-hosted docuseries that sheds new light on 400 years of human trafficking from continental Africa to the West. Based on a DNA test identifying his ancestral tribe, the series traces Jackson’s personal journey from the USA to Gabon for his induction into the local Benga tribe, providing unprecedented access to local customs that are typically not made public.

Accompanying Jackson on this six-episode journey are British author/broadcaster Afua Hirsch and investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici, who are there to put Jackson’s discoveries into context. Each episode follows three separate story lines: the quest for a sunken slave ship, a personal journey by Jackson and a historical investigation.

“When the project was presented to me they told me that they identified these ships that were in the Atlantic that were ships that were taking enslaved people all the way to the New World and they sank,” Jackson said. “And that’s a story that we’ve never talked about: Who were these people? Where did they came from? Who commissioned the ships? Those were the kinds of questions I needed answered.”

Using advanced 3D mapping and ground-penetrating radar to locate and examine sunken slave ships on three continents, the series reveals an entirely new perspective on the history of the transatlantic slave trade. It tracks the efforts of The National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS) and Diving With a Purpose (DWP), a collaborative effort as they search for and locate six slave ships that sank drowning the enslaved humans aboard.

“We never talk about the ships that did not make it and what that meant, or what the profitability of that was for the people that sponsored the ships — because even though people didn’t make it, someone still made a profit off them,” Jackson said. “I mean how did they still profit from those ships going down?”

A journey that began during an episode of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” in 2012, Jackson described his profound experience of connecting with his ancestors’ tribe, calling it a completion of something that he felt was missing in all the other things that he thought knew about himself. “I understand different aspects of what my DNA has done to me,” he said. “I have a real love for the sea and the beach, and in a way it now makes sense because I now know that I come from a beach tribe and that answers some of those questions.”

The series also digs into how the past informs the present, speaking to how social history is also very relevant to what’s happening in the country today. Jackson spoke of a present-day environment in which matters of racial injustice remain unresolved, following the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery just this year alone. He wants to make it clear that Black bodies are still treated as expendable. “The business of our bodies continued and still continues,” he said. “We were considered property at one time, and you look at what’s happening now, the argument can be made that not a lot has changed. This is important American history that has resonance today.”

Always candid, he was very public with his disgust over the death of Eric Garner in 2014, whose final words as he was put in a chokehold by officers from the New York Police Department were: “I can’t breathe.” It became the title of a Black Lives Matter anthem, launching nationwide protests against police brutality and as well as the lack of police accountability in these circumstances.

Following Garner’s death, Jackson published a video on his Facebook page calling on celebrities who participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge in order to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease), to join him in singing in protest of the choking death of Garner by white police officers.

He may have become more famous for his swearing in movies and also on his Twitter page — a search of YouTube will result in videos like “Samuel L Jackson: HOW to use ‘Motherfu**er’ for EVERY Occasion” — and it’s all quite hilarious. But the 71-year-old actor and activist has been around for a while, and there’s a lot more to his history.

He was a sophomore at Morehouse College when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, and he served as an usher at King’s funeral. It was an event that inspired him to become more politically active during that tumultuous time in American history, including taking part in a 1969 protest that locked board members in a building for two days in protest of the school’s curriculum and governance. The act got him expelled for two years.

“Well, we’ve been in the struggle for a very long time and LaTanya and I connected in the struggle … and representing that struggle throughout our lives together,” he said speaking of his wife of 40 years, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who is also an executive producer on the “Enslaved.” “That’s what drives us and moves us: Doing things that are social justice for our people and to make this world a better place.”

And this urgent and relevant series, which is airing at a critical moment, is just an extension of that work. “We can’t allow people to forget history, because you know what they say: If you start to forget, there’s a good chance [it] will repeat,” he said. “So we just hope that the series provides a greater understanding of who we are, why we protest and why things seem like they don’t really change — or they change incrementally.”

The six-part series “Enslaved,” which premiered on September 14, is currently airing on EPIX, with new episodes airing each Monday at 10 p.m. through Oct. 19.

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