Production of Enslaved is well under way, exploring the horrors of American history through marine archaeology.
The 6 x 60-minute series recounts the history of the Transatlantic slave trade by seeking out sunken ships along the routes taken by slave traders, exploring the wreckages of ships that never made it.
Realscreen caught up with director Simcha Jacobovici while he was working on the docuseries, preparing for further dives and excavations.
The idea came to Jacobovici while he was researching for his documentary Atlantis Rising with Titanic director James Cameron. This involved travelling to Sardinia, Sicily, Santorini and elsewhere, and meeting with experts searching for traces of the lost city of Atlantis.
“My team and I met the top people in marine archaeology, and we dove, and we looked for artifacts underwater and so on. And you hang out. You have dinner together as you shoot. You’re on boats for days on end. And you talk,” he says.
One of the recurring topics of conversation was the Transatlantic slave trade and the shipping routes used by slave traders to transport imprisoned Africans to the “New World.” While the harsh realities of slavery are well-documented, it’s clear that the naval voyages of such a history have not received the same kind of attention as, say, the Civil War. “To my knowledge, there’s not a single underwater monument to the millions of people who drowned,” says Jacobovici.
Enslaved seeks to shed light on this relatively obscure facet of the history of American slavery.
To do so, Jacobovici partnered with marine archaeologists who had insights into where to find these hidden landmarks. He also brought on Hollywood icon and Civil Rights activist Samuel L. Jackson, star of Pulp Fiction and Captain Marvel, among others.
The conversation with Jackson included a few degrees of possible involvement, but Jacobovici says he was all in, including executive producing, narrating and taking part in the story, which alternates between the universal (the slave trade had an enormous, international reach) and the deeply personal.
“I say, you make it your story. Part of it is your quest. You go back. You go to the place where your ancestors came from. It becomes partially your narrative,” says Jacobovici, of his early conversations with Jackson. “He and his wife LaTanya, who’s also an executive producer on the series, they really add their knowledge, their passion, their feelings, and boots on the ground.”
From there, production involved visiting sites in Africa, Europe and along the North American coast. Each site came with its own challenges, from deep sea dives to murky water, to hard-to-find ships. “Each boat is a character. It tells a different kind of story. It’s not the same story over and over again,” says Jacobovici.
Despite its historical basis — this year marks the 400th anniversary of the first African to set foot in the New World as a slave — migration and systemic racism are both hot-button issues in America today, and Jacobovici was certainly aware of this as he embarked on the project. “A couple of years ago, people would have said, ‘Oh, I’ll go for a one-hour special or two-hour special.’ I don’t know that they would have been open to a six-part series. But I think that that’s a problem. The problem is that if you just do a two-hour special, you’re back to stereotyping,” he says.
“I think if you really want to talk about culture and resistance and contribution and politics, you need to give it the scale that it deserves.”
Enslaved is produced by Associated Producers and Cornelia Street Productions. Felix Golubev and Ric Bienstock produce, with executive producers Samuel L. Jackson, LaTanya Jackson, Eli Selden, Rob Lee, Simcha Jacobovici and Yaron Niski.
Epix will air the series in the U.S. with CBC on board in Canada. Fremantle is handling international rights.