WHERE|WHEN Monday at 10 p.m. on Epix (available on Amazon Prime)
WHAT IT'S ABOUT In this six-parter, Samuel L. Jackson looks at the history of the slave trade, and goes to Gabon to locate his own ancestors in the Benga tribe. Each episode follows three stories: Jackson's personal journey; the search for a sunken slave ship; and an "historical investigation" by "investigative archaeologist" Simcha Jacobovici and British writer/TV commentator Afua Hirsch. The first episode opens with Jackson's trip to the vast country of Gabon, on the west coast of central Africa.
MY SAY Jackson must've told someone he had traced his DNA to the west coast of Gabon or that he planned to go there to become an honorary member of a Gabonese tribe. Must've told someone this was one of the most important moments of his life. Must've been overcome with emotion when he did.
Must've — but he sure didn't go on a publicity tour or announce it in a full-page Variety ad either. That's what makes "Enslaved" so unique and, to a certain extent, what makes "Enslaved." When Jackson steps onto the tarmac of an airport in a distant country, there's both news value and symbolism in the moment. Has so famous a person ever before specifically done this — bonded himself to his forebears, whose own forebears were chained and shipped across the Atlantic as part of a devil's bargain that still haunts us, certainly haunts him? If Oprah ever did, we never got the news release. Jackson now has part-Gabonese citizenship. That seems newsworthy enough, right?
As he works his way through the crowded streets of Libreville, no one seems to take notice of the world-famous guest in their midst. He is met with joyous acclaim in the Benga village and newly adopted home-away-from-home, and not because the star of "Pulp Fiction" has finally arrived. There are no Cineplexes here — what's a "Pulp Fiction" to them anyway? Instead, they seem genuinely happy that a distant relative has returned home to claim his roots, or in Jackson's words, "put a link back in my chain that was broken."
Meanwhile, Jackson is as you want him to be or expect him to be — always cool, no tears, certainly no blubbering, perhaps mindful that the guy who played Nick Fury and Mace Windu doesn't do tears or blubbering.
At one point he decides an explanation is in order: "I guess a lot of people would be very emotional [but] I absorb it as validation of being part of a hardy group of people … who know how to roll with the punches. I count myself as being from a tribe of survivors."
The producers of "Enslaved" — who include Jackson and wife LaTanya Jackson — had hoped his presence in this series would draw viewers, and they may be right. But in one sense, they also miscalculated: He pretty much is the whole series. The opener (the only episode offered for review) includes a particularly interesting search for a sunken slave ship off the Florida Keys, but you tend to patiently wade through it until Jackson reappears. Big stars have a habit of doing that. You want to know more about his search which is also a search for himself. You do want to know what he thinks and especially what he feels and maybe what that might mean to millions of other Black Americans.
Maybe viewers will get some answers in later episodes, maybe not. But what's here is at least encouraging.
BOTTOM LINE Samuel L. Jackson reveals a hidden side of himself, and that's worth watching for that reason alone.