THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
The legacy of slavery has cast a powerful shadow over all of American history. The fact that the foundations of this great country were built on the backs of millions of brutally abused, overworked and unjustly imprisoned Africans is something that is pretty tough to overlook. The public perception of the importance of slavery today may be tempered by the fact that no one alive experienced that era, even though it was extremely recent by historical standards. Still, in generations not long past former slaves were still among us and their reminiscences are collected in the Library of Congress' Slave Narratives. During the great public works programs of the 1930's the Federal Writer's Program interviewed thousands of elderly former slaves, many of whom still lived in poverty in the South. Transcripts of some of these interviews comprise the backbone of HBO's powerful Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives.
These interviews are provocative because of their intimacy with slavery and their realness. No amount of off-off-Broadway, one-man-show, monolog writing can compare with the raw words used by a former slave describing his or her experiences. The program's technique is to have noted African-American actors, including Angela Bassett, Michael Boatman, Roscoe Lee Browne, Don Cheadle, Oprah Winfrey, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Samuel L. Jackson reading the pieces directly into the camera in front of a simple black background. Minimalist in terms of cinematics but at times tremendous for emotional depth. Some of the actors overplay the accents or characteristics of the voices but they just about all hint at the complexity and depth of the words.
Many of the reminiscences in the film contain details that tell the larger story. One former child slave quotes a young white child telling him "My pa paid 200 dollars for you. He bought you to play with me," which sounds child-like in its naivete but sick in its implications. Another recalls a master's orders regarding the burial of a slave that had been whipped to death: "Put him in the ground, cover him up and hurry on back to that field." These kinds of memories bring a time that most know from history books and lectures vividly to life. Like most times past we think of slavery as something that took place in engraved images and drawings but in fact these words reveal very real people.
And like anything involving real people there is complexity and contradiction. Some of the former slaves quoted actually look back at their masters with longing, particularly some of the "house slaves," who worked as maids, butlers and cooks. This is a complicated bit of psychology but one that adds to the tapestry that is this dense history. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee portray a couple whose idea of freedom is vastly different: He bristles when thinking of his former owners while she looks at the poverty of her free years and thinks maybe slavery was better. One house slave, Cato Carter, is quoted early on nearly rhapsodizing about his white masters. Later in the program, however, this man's narrative is revisited, to devastatingly complex new dimensions. His story alone could certainly make a moving film.
The other elements of the film are equally well-done. Archival footage is mixed with newly-shot atmosphere material to create an interesting collage. Musical sequences featuring the McIntosh County Shouters - whose spirited performances of slave songs are exceptionally powerful - also add to the effectiveness of the piece.
The cynic in me eyes anything featuring Oprah Winfrey with suspicion. Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives, however, is a well-done piece that should make viewers want to seek out more of this material and experience a bit of this crucial American era in the words of those who lived it.
The full-frame video is fine. It has the look of an HBO special, with a mix of video and film sources.
Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is also fine. The soundtrack contains a nice blend of spoken word, period music and sound effects. The surround sound features these elements nicely and adds to the piece well.
Three extra features are absolutely perfect. First is an actual audio recording of one of the interviews with a former slave named Fountain Hughes, whose grandfather had belonged to Thomas Jefferson. (Transcript of the interview appears on the screen.) This is an invaluable addition: Hearing the man's own voice makes the entire program more real. He gives advice on how to stay out of debt and talks about other wisdom but it's his chance to bring the story even more to life and he does it.
Another audio interview included is with Yvonne Beatty who accompanied her father on some of his 129 interviews for the program. She describes how the interviews were taken and gives further insight into this fascinating history.
Finally, text biographies for a number of the former slaves interviewed is also included. This is really a set that was put together with thought. A book that was released separately with the DVD probably gives even further insight.
Powerful and moving, Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives is living history. This DVD includes excellent supplemental material and is very well done.