TV review: Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson

Benjie Goodhart / 08 October 2020

Samuel L Jackson delves into the grim history of 400 years of the slave trade as part of Black History Month on BBC Two. Plus, the best of the rest of the week's TV.



Enslaved 1/4, Sunday 11th October, 9pm, BBC Two

Look, we’ll get to the point of this very important and deeply moving documentary series in just a minute. But first I want to talk about its presenter, Samuel L Jackson. We know Samuel L Jackson is cool. Nobody can wave a gun around and deliver an expletive-laden, biblical soliloquy like him. Nobody can make a banal conversation about cheeseburgers seem quite so profound. Whatever ‘it’ is, he’s got it. But can you believe he’s 71? How did that happen? He’s the same age as Prince Charles, for heaven’s sake. (Prince Charles, incidentally, would be hopeless at waving a gun around and delivering an expletive-laden soliloquy, and has probably never had a cheeseburger). If I ever was cool (and there is plenty of photographic evidence to suggest precisely the opposite) I ceased to be by about the age of 24. That’s the rules. It happens to everyone. So how in the name of a Royale with Cheese is Samuel L Jackson still so flipping cool at the age of 71? Not fair!

Anyway, to business. As well as being very cool, he’s also made a very interesting new documentary series, looking at the history of slavery. Joined by author Afua Hirsch and investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici, Jackson will criss-cross the world, examining how the slave trade worked, and what happened to those who were enslaved.

We begin with the intro, and it quickly becomes apparent that no punches are going to be pulled. The numbers involved are shocking. The slave trade was phenomenally big business. Over 45,000 slaving voyages took place in 400 years. Over 12 million slaves were trafficked across the Atlantic. An unthinkable two million slaves died on route.

Samuel L Jackson is visiting his cousin Hilda. She calls him Sam. I don’t know why I’m surprised, it’s a perfectly normal form of address. For some reason, I just assumed everyone referred to him as Samuel L Jackson all the time. Anyway, Sam and Hilda go through the family tree. They can trace their lineage back to their slave forebears. Through DNA testing, Sam has discovered his ancestors came from Gabon.

And so to Gabon, were Sam is being taken on a helicopter ride by the Minister of Water and Forests who, confusingly, is a British man called Dr Lee White. But this is no jolly sightseeing tour. They are heading for the Valley of the Slaves. Over the years, up to a million slaves were held in the area before being shipped overseas. The most shocking moment comes on an island in a lagoon where the slaves were housed temporarily. They were given no food, and had to survive on the oysters from the lagoon. Over the years, so many slaves passed through that the oyster shells are stacked, metres deep, for acre after acre.

Meanwhile, a team of divers is searching for a wreck, the not-so-evocatively-named 35F, which sank in the late 17th Century in the Channel. It could be the oldest slaver ship ever found, and may hold answers to some intriguing questions. But the wreck is 360ft down in the murky depths, making it a hugely hazardous dive.

In Ghana, Afua Hirsh joins Sam at an old fort which was used as a shipping point for slaves to cross the Atlantic. The governor’s quarters have a trapdoor leading directly down to the women’s slave quarters. And Afua visits a reconstructed slave ship, to discover more about the unspeakable conditions the ‘cargo’ on board had to endure.

Part of Black History Month, and screening at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is at the forefront of public consciousness, this is a sobering, shaming watch. What is striking, too, is that this is not an academic, historic exercise for those involved. It is more visceral, more personal than that. The wounds may have been inflicted centuries ago, but they are still delivering pain to this day.

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The Trump Show 1/3, Thursday 15th October, 9pm, BBC Two

From America’s coolest person to… No. I won’t go there. Anyway, this new three-part series, showing in the run-up to the US election (wait, there’s an election coming up in the US? Why didn’t anyone say so???) charts, in eye-popping detail, the insanely chaotic, 24-hour-a-day rolling-news-story-cum-reality-TV-show-cum-pantomime that has been the Trump administration. And it is utterly riveting. It is simply astonishing to look back at the levels of unhinged chaos that have characterised the administration, and to witness how, right from the beginning, it lurched from fiasco to disaster to catastrophe.

In truth, I’d forgotten just how quickly, and how dramatically, things started to unravel after the President’s inauguration. Nevertheless we all, broadly speaking, have an idea of the main headlines of his first 18 months in office. His obsession with how many people did or did not attend his inauguration. His characterisation of the press as enemies of the people. His astonishing approach to international relations. His characterisation of white supremacists as good people. His Apprentice-like approach to firing senior staff. His extraordinary attempts to first intimidate and then woo Kim Jong Un. And yes, it’s all here in spades, illustrated with extensive archive footage. There’s a lot of archive footage when you’re the President of the USA, even more when you’re the President of the USA and a massive self-publicist to boot.

But what really makes this a phenomenally well-made and transfixing series is the quality of the contributors it has managed to secure. Short of getting big DT himself, the whole gang is here. Abrasive Communications Director Sean Spicer; notorious journalist and author Michael Wolff; Apprentice-contestant-turned-Trump-aide Omarosa Manigault Newman; Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, another (brief) Director of Communications; BBC’s Washington correspondent Jon Sopel; and Steve Bannon himself, looking, as always, like he’s just rolled in after a six week drinking session under a flyover in downtown Detroit. In later episodes, we’ll also hear from former porn star and Trump, ahem, acquaintance Stormy Daniels.

As ever, the devil is in the detail in these stories, and there is much to chew over. Omarosa reveals that, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, he said to her that he was planning on taking the oath of office by swearing not on the Bible, but on his book The Art of the Deal. Spicer’s recollection of Trump’s rage over the size of his inauguration crowd, and Spicer’s own ensuing attack on the press and free journalism, is shameless and chilling. Sopel recalls the Guardian’s reporter turning to him and saying “It reminds me of being in Zimbabwe.” A little later, we see an exchange between Trump and Sopel, during the President’s extraordinary first press conference, that is breath-taking in its hostility.

The revelations and insights keep coming. The story, by necessity, has a lot to pack in, because things have been anything but dull in Trump’s White House. There’s the internecine power struggle between Bannon and Priebus; Anthony Scaramucci’s disastrous 10-day tenure; a highly irregular approach to international diplomacy in France; and his own Secretary of state referring to the President as a “moron”. There’s actually a word that goes before that, but it’s a bit post-watershed, to say the least!

And so ends the first episode, and the first 18 months of Trump’s administration. Ah well, I’m sure things must settle down after that, right…? Right…?

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 10th October:

Britain’s Got Talent, 7:30pm, ITV: The cheerfully naff search for the nation’s next light entertainment superstar reaches its conclusion with a feature-length live final featuring, no doubt, some dancers, a singer barely out of nappies, and a dog walking on its hind legs.

Agatha Christie: 100 Years of Poirot & Miss Marple, 8:30pm, Channel 5: It had to happen at some stage. Finally, Channel 5 has run out of Saturday night royal documentaries. In its place, we have literary royalty, in the form of Agatha Christie, whose life and work is examined in this one-off documentary.

Sunday 11th October

Diana: The Interview that Shocked the World, 9pm, Channel 5: Panic over! They’d just moved it to Sunday, the scamps! This feature-length documentary looks back at one of the most sensational moments in TV history. Hearing from Diana confidants and BBC insiders, this film tells the story behind Diana’s legendary Panorama interview with Martin Bashir.

The Bridge 1/5, 9pm, Channel 4: New series which sees 12 strangers come together to try and build an 850ft bridge, by hand, to an island in the middle of a lake, inside 20 days. If they manage, they win £100,000.

Monday 12th October

Dispatches, 8pm, Channel 4: Morland Sanders looks at the US food that could come into Britain post-Brexit, and finds a depressing array of poor hygiene and low food standards.

Who Do You Think You Are? 1/4 9pm, BBC One: The genealogy programme returns for its 17th series, featuring Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker in its opening episode. As ever, some extraordinary stories are uncovered, proof that there is no such thing as a boring family.

John Bishop’s Great Whale Rescue 1/2, 9pm, ITV: The amiable Scouse comic follows the moving journey of two beluga whales who are to be released from 10 years of captivity working in an entertainment park in China. Concludes tomorrow.

Tuesday 13th October

Craig and Danny: Funny. Black and on TV, 8pm, BBC Two: Craig Charles and Danny John-Jules, stars of Red Dwarf, present this look through the history of black comedians on television over the last 50 years. The list runs from trailblazer Charlie Williams to the remarkable Michaela Coel, via, of course, our Len. Part of Black History Month.

Escape to the Farm with Kate Humble 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: Turns out the outdoorsy presenter puts her money where her mouth is: She has her own farm, in Monmouthshire. This series follows her life and work there.

Wednesday 14th October

Autumn at Jimmy’s Farm, 8pm, Channel 4: If you try very, very hard, and scour the nation, doing really careful and thorough research, you can probably still find a farm that’s not on telly. It’s unlikely, but you never know… This series follows goings-on at nice chap Jimmy Doherty’s farm in somewhere-or-other.

Inside the Tower of London 1/4, 8pm, Channel 5: Series three of the pleasingly gentle documentary about life for the yeomen and other staff at the Tower of London.

Henry VIII: The Rise of a Tyrant 1/3, 9pm, Channel 5: New documentary series that aims to reveal the truth about the infamous king – though can there really be anything we don’t yet know about this most studied of monarchs? Tonight’s episode examines how childhood traumas may have shaped his reign.

Thursday 15th October

Ugly House to Lovely House with George Clarke, 8pm, Channel 4: The architect helps a couple who have an exceedingly ugly house in an exceedingly lovely village.

Taskmaster, 9pm, Channel 4: The consistently daft and entertaining comedy-challenge show begins a new life on Channel 4 after many years on the TV channel Dave. As ever, Greg Davies and Alex Horne present.

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