From Spike Lee joints to Tarantino thrillers, Star Wars to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Samuel L Jackson has done it all. Last year he was named “Hollywood’s most bankable star”, with films grossing a total of $13bn to date – more than the annual GDP of Iceland. The New York Times has described him as “his own genre”.
And yet, despite having one of the most recognisable faces on the planet, until recently Jackson didn’t know quite where that face had come from. Like many African Americans, he was descended from people who were enslaved, leaving a question mark over his origins. That was until he embarked on a process of genealogy and DNA testing, which led him back to Gabon’s Benga tribe. “A lot of people tried to trace themselves and find out where they came from – all they could find out was maybe a country,” he explains. “So to go through what I went through – to find out what tribal ancestry I had and to be able to step back into – it was a really emotional, satisfying feeling. There’s a fullness that comes upon me, every time I land in Africa. As I step on the ground, everything sort of changes”.
It’s a process chronicled in a new docuseries, Enslaved, currently airing on BBC Two, which Jackson presents alongside broadcaster and Guardian journalist Afua Hirsch and Israeli-Canadian film-maker Simcha Jacobovici. The series juxtaposes Jackson’s journeywith stories of the pride and fighting spirit of many enslaved peoples, with tales of the horrors which took place across the world (one particularly disturbing find is a dungeon inside a church in Ghana, which gave a slave owner direct access to women and children to abuse). We also see the efforts of deep-sea divers, employing 3D and radar technology to recover the wreckage of the estimated 1,000 slave ships at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Jackson and his wife LaTanya Richardson – a stage actor who produced the series – are at home in Los Angeles on a sweltering afternoon, glasses of water loaded with ice, as we discuss somewhere even hotter: Libreville, capital of Gabon, on the west coast of central Africa. Married for 40 years, Richardson was well-placed to observe parallels between her husband and the Gabonese people. “I see some aspects of their culture that he inhabits naturally in his DNA. He loves the sea – he always did – only to find out that these people [the Benga tribe] were beach people, they were people at the edge of the sea. It’s a joy for me to see him in that setting.”
Jackson now holds a Gabonese passport, noting excitedly that the rapper Ludacris, whose wife is from the country, also has one. Richardson had always loved the sea, too, and travelling on ships and boats, but making the programme forced her to consider them in a different light. She picks up her computer and tilts it towards a work of art on the living room wall by black artist Radcliffe Bailey: a boat made of black piano keys, which they call “corrupted beauty”.
While you might not expect a Hollywood star to present a series of this kind, Jackson has always remained in touch with his roots. Born in Washington DC, the 71-year-old was raised by his mother, grandparents and extended family in a black neighbourhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was “born into the Jim Crow era”, says Richardson, a sentence which Jackson finishes “… and grew up listening to the myth of it being gone”.
After a childhood spent almost exclusively in segregated conditions, he attended the historically black university Morehouse College. A keen proponent of on-campus politics, he was an usher at Martin Luther King’s funeral, and fought against the university’s administration, even going as far as locking board members – including King’s father – in a university building for a day and a half to protest against the running of the college and its curriculum (King Sr was allowed to leave early, owing to chest pains). Jackson was subsequently excluded for two years, during which time he linked up with radical black power figures like Stokeley Carmichael, and landed on the FBI’s radar, who told his mother to get him out of Atlanta before he was killed.
It was while he was at Morehouse that he met Richardson – who studied at another black university, Spelman College. The couple went on to have a daughter, Zoe, now 38. “We’ve been trying to be revolutionary ever since,” he laughs. “We met in a revolutionary situation, and we get involved in revolutionary situations all the time.”
They both speak not of white culture but of “the dominant culture”, and navigating that as black people. Have the couple ever felt like they’ve had to choose between fully being themselves and the wants of the fickle showbiz world, an industry he entered relatively late (his big break, in Pulp Fiction, came at age 45)? “No,” Jackson says authoritatively. “We don’t compromise who we are to do the things we do. It’s imperative that we be who we are. It’s not like we’ve never heard: ‘You’ll never work in this town again.’”
Richardson laughs. “Well you have – I haven’t!” she says, modestly likening herself to “a blue collar worker” compared with Jackson.
“It’s like, ‘Well, let’s see [about never working again]’,” he says, imitating his response to displeased execs.
“No, he wasn’t ‘Well, let’s see’,” Richardson assures me. “You’re hardcore but you’re not that belligerent without a reason,” she tells Jackson.
“Between her, my daughter and my manager I’ve learned to count to 100 before I press send,” he concedes.
On social media, where he once called the current president a “hemorrhoid”, Jackson admits that he toned down his posts. Not because of his own worries, however, but because of Richardson’s fears about “these radical crazy people online that tell you they’re going to kill you”.
She adds: “When he fights with the orange man, I don’t think that that’s a fight worth having. Obviously he [Trump] is ill, and there is nothing that you’re going to be able to say that he’s even going to hear, unless you just really take him down into the pit of hell’s gutter. But his people hear it and they’re raising flags all the time. And Sam is … you know, you don’t travel with bodyguards. I need him to stay alive!”
Following the killing of George Floyd and the resultant surge in BLM protests, it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to describe next month’s US election as pivotal to the future of race relations in the US. Jackson and Richardson are spending time, says Jackson “encouraging people to become part of the political process” and campaigning online for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, instead of discussing the man he describes as “the idiot in charge”.
“There’s nothing we can do about them, [for example] putting this woman on the Supreme Court [Amy Coney Barrett, Donald Trump’s nominee] – that’s wasted energy,” Jackson says. “What you got to do now is make sure you vote so that that guy is gone. You don’t have to like [Harris and Biden], you don’t have to love them. But we got to get rid of the other person.”
Richardson nods. “The people who are about change are about peaceful protest, and that’s what we have been. But now it’s time to take all that aggression and storm the ballot boxes.”
“And not for Kanye!” Jackson adds firmly, adding that the rapper and would-be presidential candidate is “in the way”.
Though currently focused on the events unfolding in his nation, the making of Enslaved emphasised for them the global scale, and stain, of racial injustice. Jackson came under fire in 2017 for suggesting that black British actors should not play black Americans because they would not understand the racial politics of the nation – comments he himself later described as “highly insensitive”. Today, however, we’re talking not about the differences that exist among members of the African and Caribbean diasporas, but the struggles that have brought them together.
“We [Americans] always tend to think that we’re the most important and we’re the only ones when we talk about slavery,” he says. “But we had less than a third of the people that were captured.” His journey saw him gain a sense of the scale of injustice, even visiting a ceremony in Liverpool where officials apologised for the city’s part in the trade.
However, he says, he never felt more at home than in Gabon. “I feel invigorated by it. And it makes me feel alive in a way that I don’t feel here – it gives me a sense of belonging in a world that I deserve to be in.” And so, someone known by so many, has come to know a bit more about himself.
• Enslaved concludes on 25 October on BBC2. Available also on BBC iPlayer.
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