Canadian director and Samuel L. Jackson probe transatlantic slave trade in ‘Enslaved’

Canadian director and Samuel L. Jackson probe transatlantic slave trade in ‘Enslaved’

Canadian director and Samuel L. Jackson probe transatlantic slave trade in ‘Enslaved’

TORONTO — COVID-19 and other hurdles stalled production on “Enslaved,” which follows actor Samuel L. Jackson as he traces his roots and the tragedy of the sunken ships during the transatlantic slave trade.

But, as Canadian-Israeli director Simcha Jacobovici tells it, the timing of its premiere on the CBC and its Gem streaming service on Sunday “couldn’t be better.”

“After the tragedy of George Floyd, right now the whole issue between identity and Black-white relations — except for COVID-19 — I think there’s no other issue that’s more pressing around the world,” Jacobovici said in a recent phone interview.

“The delay, I think, will make more people interested in this history. What might have been regarded as niche three years ago when we started is now very mainstream.”

Jacobovici and Jackson are also executive producers on the six-part project, which sees a team of divers examining sunken slave ships that had largely been previously unexplored on three continents.

Jackson, who studied marine biology before he became an actor, follows the team to what one person in the six-part documentary series calls “a burial ground and a crime scene” that many don’t know about.

The Oscar-nominated “Pulp Fiction” star also travels to Gabon, a country on the west coast of Africa, to reconnect with his roots in the Benga tribe.

“It was very important for him to turn that journey from a personal odyssey into an opportunity to educate the planet about the transatlantic slave trade. He didn’t want it to be just about him,” said Jacobovici, noting it was an emotional journey for Jackson.

“He was interviewed on ‘The Daily Show’ and they asked him, ‘What did you feel?’ and he said ‘survivor’s remorse.’”

Jacobovici said he had the idea for the Canada/U.K. co-production three years ago, after hearing about sunken slave ships from marine archaeologists while making the National Geographic documentary “Atlantis Rising,” executive produced by Canadian “Titanic” filmmaker James Cameron.

Jacobovici was shocked to learn that of the 12 million Africans trafficked over about 400 years, at least two million died at sea.

“As a child of Holocaust survivors, I take the words ‘never again’ very seriously,” said the writer-director-producer, who was born in Israel and has lived in Montreal and Toronto, where he started his company Associated Producers. He typically travels back and forth between Toronto and Israel, except during the pandemic.

“I think that if we don’t study the past, if we deny the past, if we suppress the past, if we have collective amnesia, we are destined to repeat it.”

Cameras follow a group from Diving With a Purpose, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of submerged heritage resources. The organization works in collaboration with The National Association of Black Scuba Divers.

Jacobovici used the diving footage as a springboard to tell a larger story of the economics and politics of the transatlantic slave trade. There’s also an episode on African culture and another on Africans who resisted and fought for their freedom.

Divers in the “resistance” episode investigated the wreck of a “freedom boat” that’s believed to have ferried African Americans to freedom in Canada through Ontario’s Welland Canal.

“We could identify not only the captain, who was an abolitionist, but we ended up identifying the names of some of the Africans who were ferried by that boat to Canada,” Jacobovici said.

Jacobovici said one particularly heart-wrenching episode sees them visit a square in Lagos, Portugal, where the first enslaved Africans were sold. Nearby is a mass grave that’s now covered by a mini-golf course.

“It’s not just a job,” he said. “You’re sitting there going, ‘I can’t believe I’m standing on a mass grave and there’s no monument here, there’s mini golf.”

In Brazil, they visited a wharf where four million people were processed.

“You’re going into an area that’s a kind of a memory black hole. We’ve suppressed it, we haven’t really come to terms with it,” Jacobovici said.

“And I think if you want to understand what’s going on in the streets of the United States and Brazil and all over, we’ve got to come to terms with what happened.”

Some of the footage also wound up coinciding with recent headlines.

In Bristol, England, they interviewed an activist at the base of a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, before it was toppled by protesters this past June.

Meanwhile, the divers visited civil rights leader John Lewis, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about a month later and died this past July.

“This happened over and over again, where the stuff we were addressing, like a mass grave being a golf course, was suddenly front-page news,” Jacobovici said.

Meanwhile, their trip to Gabon was delayed when members of the armed forces there attempted a coup to oust the president, who had also suffered a stroke around that time.

Then COVID-19 shut down production, forcing Jacobovici to find other ways to finish the project — all while the Black Lives Matter movement against racism picked up.

“We were just trying to keep one step ahead of all of this, the issues that were swirling around us,” Jacobovici said. “And we really felt a sense of responsibility, that we have something very important to contribute especially at the time. I still haven’t digested it all.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2020.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Andre Lemus, the owner of Las Palmeras in Red Deer, says he hopes in-person dining restrictions are lifted this upcoming Thursday. (Photo courtesy
Red Deer restaurant owner hopes in-person dining restrictions are lifted Thursday

The owner of a Red Deer restaurant says business has “dropped” since… Continue reading

The Town of Ponoka and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) have ratified a new agreement, averting a strike. (File photo from Facebook)
Alberta gov’t ‘using pandemic as shield to lay off workers,’ says AUPE

The Government of Alberta’s “attacks on workers” is continuing with a new… Continue reading

Rocky Mountain House RCMP, EMS, Search and Rescue, STARS air ambulance and Alstrom Helicopters worked together to rescue a fallen ice climber Friday. (Photo contributed by Rocky Mountain House RCMP)
Rocky Mountain House RCMP help rescue fallen ice climber

Rocky Mountain RCMP helped assist a fallen ice climber Friday afternoon. At… Continue reading

Students Association of Red Deer College president Brittany Lausen says she’s pleased the college is offering students a choice to attend class in-person or remotely. (Red Deer Advocate file photo)
Red Deer College winter term enrolment dips

Enrolment down about six per cent but mix of online and in-person instruction is going over well

Dwayne Buckle, 40 of Red Deer finished a 1,638-kilometre walk, in honour of his family. The 12-week, 82 day-journey wrapped up in Port Hardy, B.C. on Monday. Facebook photo
Red Deer man completes 1,638 km hike for cancer research

Dwayne Buckle, a Red Deer firefighter returned home Friday after his 12-week journey

A Suncor logo is shown at the company's annual meeting in Calgary, Thursday, May 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Body of worker whose bulldozer fell through ice on inactive tailings pond recovered

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — Oilpatch giant Suncor says the body of a… Continue reading

A restaurant manager in Orlando used a sign to secretly ask an 11-year-old boy if he needs help from his family after they were spotted withholding food from him. (Photo courtesy Orlando Police Department)
WATCH: Restaurant manager uses secret note to ‘rescue’ child, says Orlando Police

The manager of an Orlando restaurant is receiving praise from police after… Continue reading

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will cripple struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

VICTORIA — A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Quebec and Ontario, the two provinces hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic,… Continue reading

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police "E" Division Headquarters, in Surrey, B.C., on Friday April 13, 2018. A young snowshoer who set out alone on a rugged mountain trail on Vancouver's north shore Thursday has died. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Snowshoer dies after overnight search on Vancouver-area mountain: RCMP

SQUAMISH, B.C. — A snowshoer who set out alone on a rugged… Continue reading

‘It was joyous:’ Sun returns to some Nunavut communities for first time in weeks

IQALUIT — A sliver of orange rose over Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, earlier… Continue reading

People take photos through the extensive security surrounding the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, ahead of the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Susan Walsh
Less pomp, very different circumstances as D.C. prepares to inaugurate Biden, Harris

WASHINGTON — Some pomp. Very different circumstances. Inauguration day is supposed to… Continue reading

Winnipeg Jets' Nathan Beaulieu (88) and Nikolaj Ehlers (27) defend against Jansen Harkins (12) during scrimmage at their NHL training camp practice in Winnipeg, Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Winnipeg Jets cancel practice due to possible COVID-19 exposure

WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets have cancelled their practice today due to… Continue reading

Most Read