Simcha Jacobovici’s Newest Project Probes African Slave Trade

October 16, 2020 –

By BARBARA SILVERSTEIN

Three-and-a-half years ago, Canadian Jewish documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici set out to uncover the history of one of the world’s forgotten tragedies: The trafficking, enslavement and mass murder of African slaves.

The result is Jacobovici’s new six-part docuseries, Enslaved: The Lost History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which debuts on CBC-TV and CBC Gem on Oct. 18 at 9 p.m. and on the Documentary Channel 9 p.m. on Oct. 17.

From left to right, director, Simcha Jacobovici; Hollywood film star, Samuel L. Jackson; and journalist Afua Hirsch in a scene from the sixth episode of the documentary series, Enslaved, which debuts on CBC TV Oct. 18 at 8 p.m.

Hollywood mega-star Samuel L. Jackson, the series’ on-screen lead, is a co-executive producer of the project.

While Jacobovici made aliyah with his family five years ago, his production company, Associated Producers, is still based in Toronto as are Enslaved co-producers Felix Golubev and Ric Esther Bienstock.

Speaking from his home in Ra’anana, Jacobovici recounted how he became interested in the history of the slave trade.

During the filming of an underwater documentary with Hollywood director James Cameron of Titanic fame, marine archeologists spoke of the existence of sunken wrecks of slave ships that had been used en route to the Americas.

“They said they knew of sunken slave ships, but nobody cared,” Jacobovici recalled. “That was the first time I thought about the Transatlantic slave trade. I did not know that we’re talking about 400 years… There were a lot of shocking things in this series.”

Of the 12 million slaves sent to the Americas, some two million died en route.

“Nobody has talked about the two million,” Jacobovici lamented. “There is not a single memorial to the two million who died… It’s like global amnesia.”

As a child of Holocaust survivors, Jacobovici said he takes the maxim of “never again” very seriously.

“Just as I believe in Holocaust education, we have to educate the planet about this mass murder, otherwise the bad guys win,” he said. “They can say it never happened.”

His team spent six months researching the project.

Each episode of the series examines a different facet of slavery, from economics and culture, to politics and abolition.

The series also includes an interview with the U.S. civil right leader John Lewis, who died in July.

Jacobovici said he was surprised to learn that only four per cent of African slaves ended up in the United States. The majority went to South America and the Caribbean, where they worked on sugar, coffee and chocolate plantations. He pointed out that slave labour kept the prices of these commodities low.

He said the series also examines the origins of racism in Europe, which can be traced to the 15th-century, anti-Jewish Toledo edict, the first law to legalize racial discrimination.

It defined people by blood rather than faith, and Jews were not pure blood.

As a storyteller, Jacobovici said engaging the audience is crucial.

“I thought the idea of searching and diving for sunken slave ships would create a great television odyssey. You follow the divers as they do their detective work. We used that concept as the springboard to tell the larger historical story.”

The series was filmed in 12 countries on four continents. Each episode revolves around a dive for a specific ship.

For instance, in episode three, Follow the Money, divers locate the Dutch ship Leusden off the coast of Suriname. Records show that as the ship was sinking, the crew nailed down the hatches and let the 640 slaves aboard drown. Apparently, companies could then make insurance claims for “lost cargo.”

Jacobovici said he had many important elements for success: An “amazing” diving team, unique research on the sunken ships, and a compelling, untold story.

However, he said he needed one more element to attract a global audience: Star power.

“Through an amazing intervention I got a meeting with Samuel L Jackson,” he said, explaining that he knew that Jackson had had his DNA traced to the Benga tribe of Gabon on a PBS television show, but he had never met the descendants of his ancestral people.

“Jackson said he did not want to go [to Africa] as a Hollywood star. He wanted it to be more meaningful. He was waiting for the right moment. When we met he felt this was the right moment. This was the right project and he was in. He felt he could turn his personal journey into a platform for educating the planet about the Transatlantic slave trade.”

Jacobovici feels that after COVID, identity politics is currently “the biggest issue. It must be understood in the context of 400 years of slavery.”

In the series, Jackson talks about his great-grandfather, who had been a slave. His grandmother would tell him what her father’s life was like.

“Slavery wasn’t something that happened thousands of years ago,” Jacobovici said.

You can find the trailer here:

https://gem.cbc.ca/media/enslaved/season-1/episode-0/38e815a-01322859cf9?cmp=DM_SEM_ENSLAVED