Samuel L. Jackson’s docuseries “Enslaved” was well under way before this year’s global “Black Lives Matter” movement resurgence, but he admits the project has taken on an urgency for which he wasn’t quite prepared.
“It was serendipitous that it came out at this particular time. That was not a plan,” says Jackson.
The “Avengers” star has narrated documentaries, from Ken Burns’ “The War” to Disney Nature’s “African Cats,” but hadn’t participated creatively until “Enslaved,” which he executive produced with his wife, actor LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
The six-part docuseries, which is distributed globally by Fremantle, examines 400 years of the slave trade from Africa to the New World and takes the actor back to his ancestral roots in Gabon in West Africa. Elsewhere, a dynamic group of divers hunt for sunken slave ships, while British author Afua Hirsch and Israeli-Canadian journalist Simcha Jacobovici provide historical analysis of the transatlantic slave trade.
“Enslaved” premiered Sept. 14 on cabler Epix and is currently airing as a four-part series on BBC Two in the U.K.
How did you become involved in “Enslaved”?
Jackson: [Producer-director] Simcha came to my manager [Anonymous Content’s Eli Selden], with the idea. They had identified five different shipwrecks from the transatlantic slave trade, and wanted to tell the story of the ships, which people never talk about.
Richardson Jackson: Since we’re interested in producing [through production company UppiTV], we were keen on projects that were relevant, interesting and entertaining, so we thought Sam tracing his lineage was the way to get into it.
Over 12 million Africans were sold into slavery, and at least 10% died en route. Why hasn’t this angle been taken in any meaningful way previously?
Jackson: I don’t know that anybody’s followed the money in that particular way. But this was a business, so let’s follow the business of it all. There were famous court cases around the sunken ships, where the people who commissioned the ships were trying to sue the insurance companies to get paid for the cargo. Those cases allowed us to have another entry point to find out what was going on during that time.
With the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, are audiences more receptive to this type of story?
Jackson: I’m not really sure. We’re so polarized in a way that, yes, some people are loving the fact that they’re seeing this whole different explanation of human trafficking that they haven’t seen. [But] there are a lot of people who say they’ve seen enough of this, and they’re sick of it.
Richardson Jackson: I [personally] think it’s timely. People were looking for answers and “Enslaved” provides a picture of forced migration into this country.
Given this year’s events, do you feel compelled to put your weight behind more projects like this, which try to provide answers?
Jackson: I always hope I find things that are interesting to me, and which will be interesting to other people — not just in the kinds of films that I make, because those are just fun to me generally — but when we find projects like this to put our weight behind, we do the best we can to step into a space with people who are credible, and where what we say will resonate in a way that makes everyone feel good about being on that side of history.
What else can we expect from your production slate?
Richardson Jackson: We have so many books.
Jackson: And we’ve got to find writers for these books. I have a Walter Mosley book that I’ve been trying to do for a while, and it looks like it’s about to get done.
How are you managing COVID-19 and the impact on production? Are you taking on any work?
Richardson Jackson: I’ve had to forego several jobs because I’m too afraid to go. I was supposed to do “Pose” and was asked to do “The Conners.” I’ve resigned myself to California.
Jackson: I keep turning stuff down because I’m like, “No, I don’t want to come to that city because it’s a hotspot.” The COVID protocols all sound so strange, and when people talk about them it’s like, “That doesn’t sound safe.” And we’re both in that age group where people get it.
Richardson Jackson: [Producers] have been very kind in saying, “We’re going to miss you.”
Jackson: And we say, :I’m gonna miss you, too, but if you need me to do a voiceover, I’m here.” I figured out how to do that in the sitting room. We’ve got that down.