Samuel L. Jackson's Enslaved and the Lost History of Canadian Slavery

Historians in the News
tags: film, slavery, Canadian history

Samuel L. Jackson's Enslaved describes itself as a series that "sheds new light on 400 years of human trafficking from Africa to the New World," but it's far from the only recent project focusing on the transatlantic slave trade. 

In fact, it's not even the first this month. 

The Ethan Hawke-led series The Good Lord Bird, which tells the story of abolitionist John Brown, premiered in early October. Filming wrapped on Barry Jenkins's upcoming series The Underground Railroad a week earlier, and the plantation-set horror film Antebellum came out in late August. 

Still, Enslaved director Simcha Jacobovici says the reason he started the project, which looks at how the slave trade affected countries and people around the world, is because that history still isn't widely known. The population's understanding of these events are simplified and skewed, he said, and television could be a good way to fix that.


Whether slavery is comprehensively shown on screen matters for more than just ratings. Charmaine Nelson, a historian and professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, says for most people, knowledge about slavery begins with movies like AmistadRoots and 12 Years a Slave. And due to a lack of inclusion in schools, that's usually where their education ends, Nelson says.

"Almost all of the big-budget Hollywood films that have been produced about slavery are about slavery in the tropics … or the American South," she said.

And when such project do touch on Canada's involvement, it's almost always in one way: as the end of the Underground Railroad, Nelson says. 12 Years a Slave features Brad Pitt as the Canadian opponent to slavery; Harriet casts the country as a utopian land of freedom.  

It is a trope that Enslaved follows: in the episode of the docuseries that takes place in Canada, the show features abolitionists, sympathizers and a ship that ferried enslaved Black Americans to freedom.

That ignores the previous centuries where slavery was legal — and practiced — here, Nelson said. Though those stories are important and true, the Underground Railroad lasted for a relatively short time compared to a much darker history of slavery in Canada. And the emphasis on that period over the other means the majority of Canadians have no idea it ever existed here, she said.

"We've enshrined 30 years and painted ourselves as only good abolitionists who saved Black Americans," Nelson said. "And we've totally obliterated, ignored and tried to raze 200 years when we were also slaving."

Read entire article at CBC