NEW YORK — “There are no experts with a bookcase behind them,” Simcha Jacobovici boasts to me from his home in Israel via Zoom. That, in part, is what separates his project from others on this topic.
We’re talking about his six-episode series “Enslaved,” an eye-opening look at the transatlantic slave trade available in the United States on Epix, a service you may have already have with a cable package. (If not, it’s a few bucks via Amazon.) It will also air on the BBC on October 11 and the CBC on October 17. It will then be available all over the world, which is important, because “Enslaved” touches everyone.
“Enslaved” investigates the slave trade from multiple angles — cultural, economic, scientific — and it is treated with the gravity and seriousness it deserves. The series is, however, engaging, energetic and, while I don’t want to say “enjoyable,” I will say watchable. Despite being a demoralizing history lesson of man’s inhumanity to man (you may require an aspirin after), the award-winning filmmaker Jacobovici has taken a novel approach.
Each episode uses as its anchor (!) a different sunken slave ship, each representative of the aspect of the history being explored. A group of marine archaeologists, Diving With A Purpose, makes the frequently dangerous trip to retrieve artifacts, while Jacobovici and his cohorts speak with experts in the field. Also making the journey: none other than Hollywood film star Samuel L. Jackson.
A lot of ground is covered, and the action moves from West Africa to Brazil to the Iberian Peninsula to Bristol, UK. Here, a rather prescient conversation is had about the still ubiquitous presence of slave trader Edward Colston.
Through it all, Jacobovici’s probing cameras continue to dive through this murky history, to which we are all tied whether we want to believe it or not.
Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Simcha, I was about to say I really liked your series, but you don’t really “like” a series about the transatlantic slave trade.
Simcha Jacobovici: That’s what we wanted. It’s difficult, but you want to stay with it. My kids watched it; there is an adventure element, and characters. We don’t want to lecture, but you learn anyway.
“Enslaved” differentiates itself with using the divers as a lens to look at this massive event in world history. Did this idea come in a sudden flash?
I’ve made three films with James Cameron, who everyone knows is obsessed with the sea. They created a special submarine just for him. We did a project called “Atlantis Rising,” and through that I met some of the best marine archaeologists in the world. With them I learned there are the sunken slave ships all around the world, and few are interested in diving them.
Now, I consider myself a fairly educated human being, but I’ll admit there was a lot of this I didn’t know. Why are there so many sunken slave ships? How long did this last? Four hundred years! I didn’t know it was that long. Twelve million people trafficked? I didn’t know that number. Two million died en route. Two million people.
I’m the child of Holocaust survivors, and when I heard 2 million people died during the voyage and there isn’t a single memorial for their deaths, I became obsessed with telling this story.
I’m the child of Holocaust survivors… I became obsessed with telling this story
I got a dream team together. My co-creator Yaron Niski, who is also Israeli, and Emmy-winner Ric Esther Bienstock in Toronto, and Felix Golebuv, also an Emmy-winner, we all had to figure out how to tell 400 years of history, and do it in a way that’s never been done before.
With each storyline, there is the diving. We found the group Diving With A Purpose, an offshoot of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers in the United States. People ask me if I went to Hollywood casting to find them, because they are so perfect — articulate and emotional in ways that balance one another. They are the backbone for the larger tales. But we needed something else for this to be epic.
I reached out to Afua Hirsch, the British writer, and she’s a star. Interestingly enough, her grandfather was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany as a child, plus she also has a Ghanaian side, and has written quite a lot about her identity.
And then we had Samuel L. Jackson, a Hollywood icon. But he’s more than that! He was an usher at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral. Also, when he was enrolled at Morehouse College, he studied marine biology.
Oh, I didn’t know that!
I didn’t know either, not until we met. I didn’t see anything on the internet. Turns out he’s a licensed diver. Once he joined, I knew we had something.
He didn’t want to make it all about himself, but we knew he had traced his lineage to the Benga tribe in Gabon. He’d been invited to meet with this tribe for years, but he had been hesitant to do it. He didn’t want the “Hollywood star comes to Gabon” headline, it had to have a purpose. This gave him that purpose. He turned his personal search into an education for others.
Those scenes are quite striking, because we all know Samuel L. Jackson as one of the great tough guys, always with a wisecrack. But in this environment, he’s quite humble, observant, maybe even anxious.
He’s never shown this side of him. He’s never really done a documentary, other than voiceover. He’s never produced a documentary, and he and his wife, LaTanya, were very involved in this. He put himself on the line. I mean, if he didn’t offer that — we could never afford him, really. This was him making himself available.
Those scenes with the Benga, and also at Elmira Castle’s “Door of No Return” in Ghana, it’s serious stuff. Normally on a film there are lots of laughs at the end of the day. Different vibe here?
Sam recently went on “The Daily Show” and said he felt he had “survivor’s remorse.” I think he had very mixed feelings. He’s an American but also a lost son — he looks at the tribe and says “that man looks like my uncle.” He’s a lost son returned, but also a superstar. Everyone wants a selfie with him. Not that he was ever vulnerable, we had some heavy Israeli dudes guarding him.
We weren’t sitting around depressed or anything, but it all felt real.
I love the moment in the film when you and Jackson have a bit of a disagreement while looking at the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle. This was a very unscripted and real instant, and almost a little uncomfortable, but you didn’t cut it out.
It’s interesting you liked that. When it happened it was a much longer disagreement, and Afua got involved, too. In the edit room some say “just leave it where everyone agrees” but I thought this was interesting like “The Da Vinci Code,” everyone trying to interpret what her turban meant, what the pearls meant. Lord Mansfield, her benefactor, made a huge ruling that was really the beginning of the end of the slave trade, but was it just a technicality? Or was this, like I said, a look at his soul? But Sam Jackson didn’t hold back — “just because he’s got a Black girl in the house?!?” So we go back and forth a bit. It’s a human moment.
Being American can sometimes make you a little navel-gazing. When I hear about slavery I think about cotton in the South and the Civil War. It was eye-opening to be reminded that this was not solely an American phenomenon, but a world problem. Britain, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, even Denmark. The United States has made some attempt to reconcile with its past. For example, in New York City, in the 1990s, an African burial ground was discovered during some construction, and now it is a national monument. In your film, you show a similar situation in Portugal, only that spot has been converted into a mini-golf course.
I think Portuguese people are going to be shocked. And we have the scene with the Danish marine archaeologist, and everyone says “I didn’t know Denmark was involved in this?!” and he says, “Well, yes, we were …”
I’m born in Israel, raised in Canada, I’ve watched movies like “12 Years A Slave” and Ken Burns’s “The Civil War.” I was shocked to learn that America only received four percent of the Africans during the transatlantic slave trade. You then hear 44% went to Brazil then you think, oh, okay that makes sense, then you hear another 38% went to the Caribbean. It just shows that this was and is a global issue. We all need to come to terms with it.
And it makes you think about unaware culpability. We all think, when we learn about the horrors of the past, “Oh, not me! I would have stood up to this!” Whether it’s slavery or lynching or Nazism, whatever. Your film drills down to the economic instigators of the slave trade and what is it? It’s sugar in the coffee? You want to sweeten your coffee, well, that means families torn apart, people abused, tortured, a whole system of barbarism.
Coffee, cocoa, sugar, tobacco — all addictive, and it creates the economy of the modern world. You want the middle class to be able to buy it? You need to keep the price down with free labor.
It’s quite mind-blowing. Same with the jumps in technology. There’s a new way to build a sail, that means new ways to exploit African “cargo.” I mean, you and I have lived through a major change in technology, the internet, and it seems great at first, then there’s all damage that comes with it.
Yes, but also the technology works the other way. In the past it was the printing press and abolition. If the triangle sail led to the change that enabled the slave trade, the printing press brought it to an end. Cartoons, believe it or not, were instrumental. It was like the handheld camera now.
Ten years ago, what happened to George Floyd would not have been captured by so many people, then distributed so quickly. If the police said “he resisted,” many people would believe it. These cartoons were like the George Floyd case of their day.
The series has some reenactments, and some of them are quite upsetting. Tell me about shooting those sequences.
Some moments are gruesome, yes, but if we got emotional while looking at it, that’s when we knew it worked. We don’t want to exploit the suffering. That’s the same with a film about Auschwitz or a sinking slave ship. On the other hand, you don’t want to sugarcoat it.
There is a debate amongst filmmakers about “trauma porn,” it’s important not to overdo it, but if you under-do it then it seems “not so bad.” You have to drive it home. This is industrial scale suffering. In reality, the women would likely be bare-breasted on the ships. But we didn’t do that, it seemed exploitive.
I had an assistant, and if she ever started crying, that’s when I was happy. Wait, that didn’t sound right. That makes it sound like I was dancing, but I think you know what I mean.
Another thing I’ll admit I didn’t know about was Africatown in Alabama. The show does a great job of showing how the cultures that were brought over still found a way to continue, whether through music or cuisine, and how it integrated into American life. The bluegrass banjo deriving from African string instruments, for example.
Sam Jackson asks Grammy-winner Rhiannon Gibbons, “Why are you the first black banjo player I’ve seen?”
I did not want to show Africans as victims all the time. It’s like when Jews are shown as victims. We resisted Nazism and they resisted slavery. We discuss the mutinies, the Maroon villages, African American participation in the Civil War, and especially the cultures left behind. They did not arrive from a cultural vacuum. They had a culture.
Europeans tried to portray them as primitive, as doing them a favor enslaving them because they were educating them. No! They had a rich culture, and so much of that culture was brought to world culture, through America, in the bowels of those ships. Those forgotten ships are the Ground Zero of where so much happened, and it has influenced the world. It’s important to recognize this.