Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives

2008
Distributed by Films Media Group, PO Box 2053, Princeton, New Jersey 08543-2053; 800-257-5126
Produced by Jacqueline Glover
Director n/a
DVD, color, 74 min.
Jr. High - Adult
African American Studies, American Studies, History


Reviewed by Miriam Conteh-Morgan, The Ohio State University Libraries, Columbus, OH

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 5/29/2009

How can one tell the story of one’s life, a life that is woven into the collective narrative of a people, a country and an era, a story whose central plot will always be fraught with pain, anger or guilt? Slavery remains a contentious topic in American Studies and a difficult one to depict on screen, but it can be done with sensitivity and playfulness without necessarily diminishing its horrors. That is exactly what Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives achieves.

First-person accounts of the slave experience were collected through interviews with two thousand-plus former slaves in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. The original project documents are housed in American Memory Project’s Born in Slavery at the Library of Congress. Much of what is retold in this documentary is not new and has been depicted countless times and in numerous formats. However, two things about this film stand out, marking it as an excellent work. One is the careful selection and mix of narratives.

In addition to the retelling of the resilience of the human spirit, the selected stories also show that there could be a lighter side to all lived experience, no matter how dire the circumstances. Additionally, these are experiences to which everyone can relate. For example, in one man’s story about sneaking away to visit his girlfriend on another plantation, the painful consequences did little to dull the beautiful memory of the visit as he recalled the incident. Or who would not chuckle over the possibility of a young man splattering gravy on both linen and guests while swatting away bugs with peacock feathers? Such funny tales and more are juxtaposed with poignant ones. Take that of the man who made a mission of rowing many unknown slaves to freedom in Ripley, OH before finally becoming a runaway himself; or the other about the slaves’ confusion over how to respond to the bell which sounded at an odd time of the work day. It turned out that bell was proclaiming their emancipation.

However, it is the star-studded cast of narrator—Whoopi Goldberg—and readers such as Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Sandra Daley, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, Courtney B. Vance, Vanessa L. Williams, Oprah Winfrey and Alfre Woodard that brings these people and their stories to life. The content of the stories sometimes so overwhelms these seasoned performers that we feel we are actually listening to the voices of the former slaves. The rendering of personal stories of pain and humiliation, of doubt and hope, of the funny and sad is nothing but powerful. And beautifully woven in with all these narratives are illuminating photos, music, dance and film clips.

Indeed the body may have been chained, but no slave holder or overseer could control memories. Unchained Memories offers insights into a chapter of America’s history, retold by those who have been shaped by experiences and memories of those times. It holds the attention of the viewer to the very end. It is highly recommended for junior high to college level and general audiences.