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Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives

4.7 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Unchained Memories: Slave Narrative (DVD)

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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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

Special Features

Biographies: Biographies of the ex-slaves featured in the documentary DVD ROM Features: ROM links to the HBO.com site, Library of Congress Salve Narratives Archives, The Freedom Center Interviews: Original slave narrative audio recording of Fountain Hughes. Audio interview with Yvonne Beatty, daughter of Samuel S. Taylor, who was an interviewer for the Federal Writer's Project Arkansas Unit.Biographies: Biographies of the ex-slaves featured in the documentary DVD ROM Features: ROM links to the HBO.com site, Library of Congress Salve Narratives Archives, The Freedom Center Interviews: Original slave narrative audio recording of Fountain Hughes. Audio interview with Yvonne Beatty, daughter of Samuel S. Taylor, who was an interviewer for the Federal Writer's Project Arkansas Unit.Biographies: Biographies of the ex-slaves featured in the documentary DVD ROM Features: ROM links to the HBO.com site, Library of Congress Salve Narratives Archives, The Freedom Center Interviews: Original slave narrative audio recording of Fountain Hughes. Audio interview with Yvonne Beatty, daughter of Samuel S. Taylor, who was an interviewer for the Federal Writer's Project Arkansas Unit.

Product Details

  • Actors: Various
  • Directors: Various
  • Format: Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 5.1)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated:
    NR
    Not Rated
  • Studio: HBO Video
  • DVD Release Date: January 20, 2004
  • Run Time: 75 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00007M5KT
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #24,390 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Joe Sherry on November 18, 2003
Format: DVD
A film by Ed Bell and Thomas Lennon
This HBO documentary is a powerful film. In the 1930�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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Format: DVD
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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Format: DVD
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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Format: DVD
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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By C. Parker on February 17, 2003
Format: DVD
I, like the previous reviewer, agree that this documentary is something that should be required reading and viewing in our children's schools. I saw this on HBO and can not tell enough people about this program. I am eager to buy the book and the DVD. This documentary is the Roots of this generation. And like Roots, this is something that should be apart of every American's video/dvd collection...especially African Americans.
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Format: DVD Verified Purchase
When this HBO documentary was first released in 2003, I had already been using Julius Lester's book "To Be a Slave" for nearly twenty years in my sophomore English classroom. I used that book to provide my students with a deeper understanding of slavery before assigning "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Like Lester's book, "Unchained Memories" relies heavily on the Federal Writers Project of the late 1930's when dozens of interviewers sought to collect the stories of thousands of ex-slaves.

What this 75-minute documentary does is recreate those interviews with actors reciting word for word from those personal slave narratives. Along with period photos and occasional recreated film footage, what you get is a deeply moving look at the most shameful period in our nation's history.

While I agree with some of the detractors that some of the actors get a bit too much screen time, it's still difficult not to be moved by these first-person accounts. The variety of voice actors used really bring these stories to life. [I was especially pleased to see Courtney B Vance--who was Miss Watson's Jim in the most recent film adaptation of "Huck Finn."]

In addition, there are a couple of fascinating bonus features. One is a nearly 24-minute taped interview with ex-slave Fountain Hughes at the age of 101. Also of interest, is a 5-minute interview with Yvonne Beatty, who accompanied her father Samuel who was one of the Federal Writers Project interviewers.

Overall, this documentary makes for compelling viewing. VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
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