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Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives (Full Screen)

Whoopi Goldberg , Angela Bassett , Ed Bell , Thomas Lennon    NR (Not Rated)   DVD
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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The material used for this beautifully made HBO documentary dates back to the 1930s, when journalists conducted thousands of interviews with former slaves who'd been emancipated at the end of the Civil War. A selection of these faithfully transcribed "slave narratives" are vividly read (acted, really) here by a host of distinguished performers, ranging from Samuel L. Jackson to Oprah Winfrey, from Don Cheadle to Angela Bassett, with narration by Whoopi Goldberg. Since there's obviously no film available from the slave period, the producers use artfully edited photos, file footage, some atmospheric new film, and shots of the performers in action to bring the material to life. Add all of that to the DVD bonus features (text bios of individual slaves and a couple of lengthy audio segments), and you have a moving record of bitter, weary, yet resilient and quietly proud people living with memories that never would, or could, fade. --Sam Graham

Product Description

When the Civil War ended in 1865, more than four million slaves were set free. Over 70 years later, the memories of some 2,000 slave-era survivors were transcribed and preserved by the Library of Congress. These first-person anecdotes, ranging from the brutal to the bittersweet, have been brought to vivid life in this unique HBO documentary special, featuring the on-camera voices of over a dozen top African-American actors.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Often moving and powerful documentary March 8 2012
By K. Gordon TOP 50 REVIEWER
Various wonderful actors, from Samuel Jackson to Ruby Dee read the
actual transcripts of former slaves' memories of their experiences, as
recorded by the U.S. Library of Congress in the 1930s.

Certainly hearing people's own experiences in their own words bring the
surreal horrors of slavery to life in a way that no dramatization can.

My only complaint, as with several other HBO documentaries, is that at
75 minutes this actually feels a little too short, a little raced
through. I would have preferred to hear more of these people's
journeys. As it is, sometimes the emotion is just building when we
switch to another reader and another story.

Also, inter-cutting somewhat forced feeling 'backstage banter' as the
actors prepare for, or finish their readings feels a bit distracting
from the more powerful simple, straightforward readings. But these are
minor flaws in an affecting, effective documentary and educational
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4.0 out of 5 stars A powerful and fulfilling experience. Dec 1 2003
I recently enjoyed seeing the DVD of this documentary reading from the Slave Narratives that is in the Library of Congress. These are readings from former slaves interviewed as part of a writing project sponsored by the federal government work program in the 1930s. This is one of those gems that would have been lost if not for the misery of the Great Depression and with the initiate of Roosevelt's employment projects.
The readings are by a variety of actors each of whom give dimension to the printed words. However, much of what is in the texts was so well expressed by the former slaves that even a monotone reading would have been enlightening. My favorite is of the man who risked his life rowing run away slaves to Ohio. He began only because his first passenger was so beautiful that he forgot his fear and thought of her the whole way. From this experience, he regularly took others despite his own enslavement. Later, his experience allowed him to free himself and his family.
The language and atmosphere of the times are fully experienced in this documentary. I would wish for those with romantic ideas of the ante bellum period to view this film and read from the text instead of encasing themselves in southern sympathy novels and pseudo history books. However, I would have liked to have seen a copy of the movie minus the actors preparations for their readings. It's not a serious problem for me, but I am only curious to compare whether the flow of the film would have improved or not. It was as though the filmmaker didn't trust the audience to know how they should react and used the actors to guide the viewer. Or perhaps they wanted to show the celebrities so as to better sell the film.
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4.0 out of 5 stars powerful Nov. 18 2003
A film by Ed Bell and Thomas Lennon
This HBO documentary is a powerful film. In the 1930ï¿s the United States government commissioned journalists to conduct interviews with those former slaves who were still living. The result was a collection of more than 16 volumes of interviews, the words of former slaves about their experiences. The interviews were transcribed with the way these men and women spoke, in their vernacular. This film is a documentary made up of actors reading some of these interviews to tell the story of slavery and what it was like for these men and women. The documentary uses photos and old video footage to augment the slave narratives. Along with the photos and video footage, we also see the actors reading the narratives, speaking in character. This film is narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and features readings by: Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Samuel L Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Jasmine Guy, Ossie Davis, Courtney B Vance, Alfe Woodard, and others.
The strongest part of this film, as you might expect, is hearing the words of the former slaves and see photographs from that time. This is powerful, powerful stuff. What is less effective is seeing the actors read the narratives. They are perfectly in character, but seeing the actors sitting there delivering the lines is less powerful than just hearing it. Unfortunately, the film also shows the actors right before and after they read the narratives. While the actors are very moved by what they have read and they are very respectful towards the material, it takes us out of the moment and pulls back from the power of the words. This only happens a couple of times, fortunately.
I would definitely recommend this film, especially to high school and college students. This should be part of the curriculum and not be ignored or skipped over, like the subject often is. These narratives are powerful and moving. Highly recommended.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Painful, Real and Touching June 19 2003
The casting was perfect and the real emotion of the stars and readers seemed genuine. There is no greater history lesson on the birth of a country and its evolution than to hear first hand stories of an enslaved people. Well worth viewing.
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5.0 out of 5 stars This is wonderful! March 2 2003
It is hard watching stories on this subject. It is so much pain. Sometimes, it is very uncomfortable. You think, how could someone do such things. But, this somehow, felt like listening to a story from your mother, your grandmother or sister. (Hence the narrative part lives up to its name).
As I was being educated about my ancestors, I could not help but feel pride. I felt the depts of thier pain by listening to these narratives.
These people, lived without shoes, ate very little, got whipped for the smallest of "crimes," but managed to survive, and to care for one another and to build families--if only for a little while.
I bought this DVD and will buy the book. Too bad they did not offer it in a set.
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