Slave's Royal Lineage Chronicled in New Film The story of an African prince, wounded in battle, who falls into the hands of slave traders is the subject of a new documentary, Prince Among Slaves. Acclaimed filmmaker Bill Duke directed the re-enactments for the documentary. Duke and Artemus Gaye, a descendant of the film's hero, discuss the true story.
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Slave's Royal Lineage Chronicled in New Film

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Slave's Royal Lineage Chronicled in New Film

Slave's Royal Lineage Chronicled in New Film

Slave's Royal Lineage Chronicled in New Film

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  • Transcript

The story of an African prince, wounded in battle, who falls into the hands of slave traders is the subject of a new documentary, Prince Among Slaves. Acclaimed filmmaker Bill Duke directed the re-enactments for the documentary. Duke and Artemus Gaye, a descendant of the film's hero, discuss the true story.

See Clips from the Film

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, one NFL player's life after football. Injuries suffered during Dave Pear's career are still taking a toll on his body and his finances. And he's not alone.

But first, since the beginning of the year here on TELL ME MORE, we have been acknowledging the bicentennial of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, on January 1st, 1808. We've tried to focus on stories we call Hidden in the History Books, people and events that are not well-known and yet of tremendous importance in understanding the history and legacy of slavery.

Tonight, PBS premieres a new documentary that tells one such story. "Prince Among Slaves" tells the remarkable story of Abdul-Rahman, an African Muslim prince who was captured in battle and sold into slavery in 1788. He remained enslaved for 40 years before regaining his freedom. And how he did that is a tale in itself.

Joining us to talk about it is Bill Duke. The acclaimed filmmaker is co-director of "Prince Among Slaves." He joins us from the studios of NPR West. We're also joined by Artemus Gaye. He is a descendant of Prince Abdul-Rahman. And he's with us from WBEZ in Chicago. Welcome, gentlemen.

Mr. BILL DUKE (Co-director, "Prince Among Slave"): Thank you for having me.

Mr. ARTEMUS GAYE (Relative of Prince Abdul-Rahman): Thank you.

MARTIN: Mr. Duke, how did you hear about this story? And I have to tell you, I'm quite chagrined that I've reached the age that I am and think of myself as a fairly well-educated person, never heard of this before.

Mr. DUKE: Well, I hadn't heard of it, either, until one of the producers, Alex Kronemer, you know, sent me the book. And I called him briefly after reading it and just said how educational an experience it was reading the book, and also inspiring it was reading the book. I'd never heard of this gentleman and his great contribution.

He is someone who I think flies in the face of Western civilization's perception of Africa as kind of savages in loincloths that were very lucky that they were enslaved, because they were brought to civilization. But this story flies in the face of all that, because there were kingdoms that existed that were much more sophisticated than the colonies, and that somehow, like, there's no vested interest in telling that story.

MARTIN: And briefly, if you would, tell us a little bit about Abdul-Rahman. How did he become a slave?

Mr. DUKE: He was captured. A tradition, to a certain extent at that time, was when you defeated an army, that those people were marched down to the shore and traded for armaments, et cetera. And he became victim of the same reality. And he was a prince, sophisticated, educated. His father ran a kingdom. He was a powerful individual, but fell prey to some of the practices that he actually practiced, and was put on the slave ship and went through the Middle Passage and saw the death, suffering, and was able to go to the slave market and be sold and become the person who managed his owner's plantation, became the most prosperous plantation in the area.

And he suffered a great deal. But what's inspiring is the fact of his ability to lead and to really be someone that people admired, to have character and a sense of himself that transcended his suffering. And it's a lesson to us today.

MARTIN: Let's play a short clip that describes how Abdul-Rahman was captured.

(Soundbite of movie, "Prince Among Slaves")

(Soundbite of screaming)

Mr. MARCUS MITCHELL (As Prince Abdul-Rahman): We were ambushed.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Mr. MITCHELL: (As Prince Abdul-Rahman) We heard the guns. We saw the smoke.

(Soundbite of screaming)

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. MITCHELL: (As Prince Abdul-Rahman) And my men dropped like rain.

MARTIN: And that was the voice of Robert McKay, who provides the voice of Abdul-Rahman. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: IN "PRINCE AMONG SLAVES," PRINCE ABDUL-RAHMAN IS PLAYED BY MARCUS MITCHELL]

Artemus Gaye, how did you become aware of your connection to Abdul-Rahman? Is this a story that you knew growing up?

Mr. GAYE: No, I did not know about his story. My interest in this story actually happened during the civil war, when my great-grandmother, just upon her death, had begun to tell us the story of our family history, one that I pretty much got to know through her insisting that we learn to stay at her feet and listen.

MARTIN: You mean the civil war in Liberia?

Mr. GAYE: The civil war in Liberia, and that's 1990, as I recall. We had just moved to the west of the country where she is from. And there, she began to tell the story of our family, her great-grandfather Simon Rahman(ph). It was interesting, and I loved the story. But as a young man, a young child, I was not paying too much attention to it.

But when death came so close to my own father, who was then a government official - city and government official in Liberia - the news came, and we were forced to flee. And upon leaving that part of the county, we received word after two weeks that she had died. And it was there I began my search to listen to what my grandmother had told me all along about her past.

MARTIN: Why do you think she didn't tell you sooner?

Mr. GAYE: Well, we were all scattered back home, and she lived in another part of the country. And in our family, there was always someone to carry on the family's tradition. So the civil war was just a coincidence that we all would be, for the first time, that our family would all be under one single roof. So it so happened that it was at that present moment, you know, that we had a chance to hear part of our family history.

MARTIN: That is remarkable. And Mr. Duke, a lot of documentaries shy away from reenactments for, you know, all kinds of reasons. And I mentioned that you're a co-director of the film. The other director's Andrea Kalin.

Mr. DUKE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And you directed the reenactments.

Mr. DUKE: Yes.

MARTIN: And I think that - I'm sure there are all kind of discussions around reenactments, but I think part of the reasons that perhaps - I think some filmmakers shy away from them is that it makes something that's already difficult to watch even harder, because you can't step away from it. And I just want to ask you, what do you think the reenactments brought to the film that you could not have accomplished without them?

Mr. DUKE: A sense of context, you know. The time, what was it like? It's one thing to read about it, but to see it reenacted - it's not just battles that we see. But we see part of the kingdom, his education, his father and his family, and it kind of gives us a visual context within which we can understand what really happened.

(Soundbite of movie, "Prince Among Slaves")

Mr. MITCHELL: I was born Abdul-Rahman of Futa Jallon.

(Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MITCHELL: (As Prince Abdul-Rahman) I lived with my wife and child in the capital, Timbo.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MITCHELL: (As Prince Abdul-Rahman) A journey of two moons from Timbuktu, where I once studied.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MITCHELL: (As Prince Abdul-Rahman) My father was Sori, king of Futa Jallon.

Mr. DUKE: And although some of the reenactments can be painful, I think they can all be instructive in terms of the courage that we all must have to transcend the things we have to deal with in our lives.

MARTIN: Mr. Gaye, what about you? It's one thing to know that your ancestors experienced slavery and the brutality of that existence. But what was it like for you to watch this film, knowing that your ancestors experienced this firsthand?

Mr. GAYE: Well, watching the film - first, let me just say I - how grateful I was and I will continue to be to Mr. Duke for stepping out. Thank you, sir. You did so well, because to tell this story that transcends the human spirit in itself, it just brought so much memory for me personally, knowing that I also came through a civil war. So it was if I was living Abdul-Rahman pain.

So to see what he went through, for me, it gives me the sense of belonging, that our freedom is not just free. It comes with a lot of responsibility. But because I saw this man who loves family - his love for family, his love for religion, and his love for just the human being itself, just brought so much strength within myself. So for me it was a more imagination to see this film transcending all of human's life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we're talking about the new PBS documentary, "Prince Among Slaves." It premieres tonight on PBS stations.

Mr. Duke, one of the extraordinary things about Abdul-Rahman is that he became - I don't know if you like this term, but a media star of his age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And let's play a short clip that speaks to that point.

(Soundbite of movie, "Prince Among Slaves")

Mr. JON C. BAILEY (As Andrew Marschalk): Prince is really a most extraordinary man. Born to a kingdom, well-educated, he was faithful, honest, humble and industrious. I do not look upon Prince or Abdul-Rahman as a mere biped slave, but as a dignified captive, a man born to command, unjustly deprived of his liberty.

MARTIN: That was the voice of Jon C. Bailey, who provides the voice of journalist Andrew Marschalk. He used the media to sort of create this aura to allow him to - well, first he achieved his freedom, but then he wanted to achieve his family's freedom, and he needed some help to do that. Would you talk a little bit about that? And I wonder if you see any parallels today to some of the things we see.

Mr. DUKE: Well, I think he is to be celebrated for not having what I call blamnesia, which is the black men's amnesia. And what I mean by that specifically is he could have simply gotten his own freedom, be quiet, and kind of been thankful just for that. But he became a spokesman for those who had no voice, and that's to be celebrated, also.

So I really think that to be a media star - you know, Lupe Fiasco has a new song out called "Superstar," which talks really about self-indulgence. He was not that kind of media star. He was a sacrificial lamb in the sense that he was willing to sacrifice anything for the freedom of all around him.

MARTIN: Mr. Gaye, you've been traveling around to talk to people about "Prince Among Slaves," your ancestor's story. What's it like for you to share this story?

Mr. GAYE: For me, sharing this story has been a way in which I reach out to people who have not understood Africa's past. For example, I feel very, very happy when I see young people, especially African-American kids, because one of the thing I always tell them that there is an African saying - well-coined by an African philosopher, John Beattie, from Kenya - that I am because we are. And for me, telling them that also tells the story of Abdul-Rahman, because here was a man who had suffered so much injustice. But his suffering was not just him. He was known, but there were millions of others like him who had no one to tell their story. But for the fact that he saw his dignity, he knew who he was, and that's the message I always want to give, that we always have to know who we are.

MARTIN: Mr. Gaye, Liberia has gone through a very difficult period, is now trying to restabilize after years of war, as your family experienced. Other parts of the continent, as we know, are struggling, you know, Kenya going through a very difficult time. When you think about the legacy of slavery, do you connect it to the difficulties that Africa is now experiencing, or do you just see, you know, one thing is part of the past and the present is the present?

Mr. GAYE: I see a connection, and that connection has to do with so much what we have already suffered in the past. At the same time, I see a legacy left by that suffering. And it pains me that with the fact that Africans are now in political leadership, but they have never aspired to move beyond the pain. So what they are doing for so long is to still remind us of our past. And that is where we need to challenge our leadership back in Africa, to say here we are. We have suffered so much. What can we do? And what I have realized is there is a sense of amnesia that still holds Africa back.

MARTIN: What do you mean by that? I mean, is it - you mean the shared responsibility for slavery? What do you mean by that? Where do you think the amnesia about the past fits into the present?

Mr. GAYE: Just in Africa itself, there are people who don't even think that slavery took place. That kind of mindset tells you a lot, that that sickness is a disease. You know, you see that in the people. Even colonialism, with all of its impact on the continent, yet some people just think it was good for the continent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GAYE: So when you have your value system, your mindset in that kind of way, it is very, very difficult to move on. So the current ethnic tensions in Africa, Kenya, the past experience in Rwanda, these are all reminders of the legacy of that past and how we have not moved beyond that yet.

MARTIN: Mr. Duke, you have any thoughts about that?

Mr. DUKE: When you're trying to be like something opposite of your past, you are moving into an area of vague kind of identifying with a pop culture value system that is based upon your annihilation. I don't think we really understand how deeply this goes in terms of our way of thinking, how it's destroying our culture, how it's destroying our children and our future.

MARTIN: I wonder if some of this amnesia, as you both describe it, is a sense of shame, a shame about this enslavement, a shame about the suffering. You think that, Mr. Duke?

Mr. DUKE: Well, it's either shame or cowardice, you know. But we are always reminded, which is interesting. You know, we may have as much blamnesia as we want, but there's always someone who'll remind us who we really are, who they think we are. And we try to stick our head out of the mud and say, well, you know, we're different from everybody else. But until we just start to connect, I think not much going to change for us. I'm not trying to be pessimistic, but until we start understanding that we are all part of something greater than our individual selves, not much is going to change.

MARTIN: Bill Duke is co-director of the documentary "Prince Among Slaves." He joined us from NPR West. Artemus Gaye is a descendant of Abdul-Rahman, whose story is told in the film. He joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. The film premiers tonight. You'd want to check your local listings for times.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DUKE: Thank you.

Mr. GAYE: Thank you.

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