Presented by Jackson, author (“Brit(ish”) and journalist Afua Hirsch and series director Simcha Jacobovici, “Enslaved” will be aired on Canada’s CBC and the Documentary Channel from this fall — first broadcasts after Epix for a series which, says Hirsch, comes in at the magnitude and impact of the slave trade from a novel and needed double perspective which closes the gap between big picture statistics and the personal narrative of “Roots.”
Visiting former slavery hubs, such as slave dungeons at Elmina in Ghana, where one of Hirsch’s ancestors lived, and, introducing a sense of adventure to painstaking research, capturing six dives to locate and examine sunken slave ships, “Enslaved” documents the enormity and mortality of the slave trade.
As many as 12 million Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery, “Enslaved” suggests. Of these, at least 2 million were murdered or died en route from Western Africa to Brazil and the Caribbean.
Combining scientific detective work, reportage and dramatic reconstruction, “Enslaved” has multiple moments of pure horror, such as slaves being thrown overboard from the Spanish ship Guerrero to help it outdistance a British schooner and still deliver its illicit slave cargo to Cuba; or rusted iron ankle cuffs used to shackle slaves in pairs to encumber their movements and ensure no possibilities or swimming or escape.
The slave trade was conducted by all major European nations and Africans as well. At one point in the 18th century, it accounted for a highly significant part of Britain’s GDP, Hirsch says in an interview with Variety.
If the industrial revolution lifted off in Britain from the 1780s, profits from slavery cannot but have supplied much of its rocket fuel.
Yet “Enslaved” has moments of charm, such as scenes of Samuel L. Jackson, after DNA tests suggest his ancestors were transported as slaves from Gabon, visiting the country to retrace his roots. Jackson’s face, as he is greeted by Gabon’s minister of culture, local Benga dancers and a hugely enthusiastic crowd — emotion, surprise, overwhelming — are a picture, and an upbeat moment in a docu series which comes in from multiple angles on the slave trade, a huge entry in history’s annals of human infamy.
Sold by Fremantle outside the U.S., Canada and Israel, featuring dives by Diving with a Purpose, an expert team of international deep-sea divers, part of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, “Enslaved” is produced by Toronto-based Associated Producers and London’s Cornelia Street Productions. It is executive produced by Samuel L. Jackson, LaTanya Jackson, Eli Selden, Rob Lee, Jacobovici, Ric Esther Bienstock and Yaron Niski and produced by Ric Esther Bienstock, Sarah Sapper and Felix Golubev.
Variety talked to Afua Hirsch during this week’s virtual marketplace.
What interested you about this production that brings to life the inhuman horror of the slave trade?
One of the things that really appealed to me is that we talk about the history on two radically different levels. It was this global trade and there are statistics about how many millions of Africans were killed and how many were trafficked and how many were stolen, but I think it often comes across as quite an abstract history to people. Or we talk about it on a very personal level. Many beautiful novels and films and TV series have been made recounting individual experiences, like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” or the “Roots” series.
I have always felt that there was this gulf in the middle that makes it difficult for people to personally connect with the scale of the history and that’s because there is not really anything that you can see up close. Even if you go to plantations, they have often been sanitized and are often more about celebrating the hospitality of the Deep South, or Jamaica – it’s not like going to Auschwitz, where your really get to connect with the scale of the atrocity that happened there.
The Atlantic Ocean is literally littered with the wreckages of slave ships. I didn’t know and many people don’t know that. It really did bring it home to me in a new way that this is all around us. It’s profoundly omnipresent but at the same time invisible. It’s such paradox, so any creative way of closing that gap instantly appeals to me.
How would you describe the impact this project had on you, particularly visiting historical slave trading sites like Elmina in Ghana?
It was a really emotional one for me because when I was writing my book, which is about identity and British ethnicity, and partly about history, I did some research on my own family and even found a drawing of my fifth great grandfather’s house in Elmina, in the 1830s I think it was, which was just incredible. So I have a long family history that has always fascinated me. I think it’s an emotional place for everyone, because of what happened there, but I get to talk about the sense of my own family having been involved, so it’s always quite intense to go there.
The series mixes multiple elements and parallel stories without continuously presenting a history lesson, although it is in its totality …
I think that’s very deliberate. The idea of the series is to get beyond the self-selected groups that would engaged with the traditional documentary about the subject. I write for the Guardian, I make documentaries, I’m always conscious of not preaching to the choir and I’m always trying to be creative in ways of reaching audiences that maybe wouldn’t engage with this subject or maybe not realize that it’s relevant to them.
I think this is a really innovative way to do that. By involving Samuel L. Jackson — that instantly appeals to a completely new demographic, younger audiences familiar with his incredibly vast catalogue of movies. But also the archaeological element, the adventure of it, the dives and the mystery solving as well as the the storytelling and the travelling, I think it’s so many things. That’s really important because this is everybody’s shared history. Our world as we know it would not exist without this history. There is no British or American or South American or African person who was not touched by this history.
There would seem to be an inevitable connection between the industrial revolution and the slave trade …
At one point, at the turn of the eighteenth century, sugar from enslaved Africans working for British-owned plantations in the Caribbean was the single most valuable import to the British Isles. Those profits were invested in the industrial revolution, in infrastructure, in banking, in education, so the slave trade wasn’t a side hustle, it was the main event in British economic growth.
The fact that if you go to Oxford to read history now, you can study the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as one subject or you can study the Industrial Revolution as a separate subject, which to me has no intellectual integrity. These things were inextricably linked, and because we still artificially separate them it makes it really hard for people to understand how essential a part of European and British history this is.
What was it like working with Samuel L. Jackson?
A total joy, I loved working with him. He just threw himself into this project with so much energy. He was genuinely intellectually curious about the history and also felt this emotional attachment to his own heritage and his own story. It was a real privilege to be with him in parts of that journey because he traced his ancestry to Gabon and went specifically to where his ancestors were trafficked into slavery. … He was very generous with his emotions and his experience, so it was a really special thing.