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HBO presents
Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives (2003)

"I sure has had a hard life. Just work. Workity work. I never know nothing but work. I never knows what it was to rest. I just work all the time, from morning to late at night."
- Sarah Gudger (real-life slave)

Review By: Brian Calhoun   
Published: November 13, 2003

Stars: Angela Bassett, Michael Boatman, Roscoe Lee Browne, Don Cheadle, Sandra Daley, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Guillaume, Jasmine Guy, Samuel L. Jackson, CCH Pounder, LaTanya Richardson, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Roger Guenveur Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Vanessa Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Alfre Woodard
Director: Ed Bell

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (graphic descriptions of real-life violence, language)
Run Time: 01h:13m:23s
Release Date: February 11, 2003
UPC: 026359201523
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B A-BB+ B

DVD Review

While the human race has much to learn about racial tolerance, I often lose sight of just how far we have come in a short period of time. After viewing the telling documentary, Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives, I found it nearly unfathomable that it has been less than 150 years since African-Americans were mistreated in the inconceivable ways described within these revealing narratives. Though neither words nor actions can ever expunge the past horrors of slavery, we can certainly continue to learn from our historical mistakes. Our current state of growing equality demonstrates promise of a movement towards eventual unity.

At the end of the Civil War, over four million slaves were freed. In the late 1930s, one hundred thousand of these ex-slaves were still alive, and the Federal Writers Project hired journalists to search for these individuals and document history in their own words. More than two thousand unaltered interviews were recorded, retaining the original dialect to create a personal account of the hardships of slavery. Now held in The Library of Congress, the "Slave Narratives" present startling testimony of how it was to be a slave. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, this HBO documentary features archival footage and photographs in addition to dramatic readings of the actual narratives by many of Hollywood's top African-American actors and actresses.

The narratives are dictated with extreme emotion by each performer, all of whom add a gentle touch of empathy and realism to their readings. I was interested to find that the cameras often kept rolling after they ceased reading, in order to probe their reaction to the difficult subject matter. Many of the accounts describe the physical abuse endured by the slaves, which included extreme whippings, salt and red pepper rubbed into deep wounds, as well as sexual violations. Merely hearing about these atrocities made me sick to me stomach. While the very nature of Unchained Memories is somewhat hard to handle for the full 75-minute running time, it is a fascinating project carefully explored by those who are mindful enough of our history so as to not risk the mistake of repeating it.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The 1.33:1 full-frame image is comprised of material of varying quality. The panning of still images proves to be most problematic, exhibiting many aliasing problems. In contrast, the interview sections are extremely clean and appear to have been shot using hi-definition cameras. The archival footage looks surprisingly good, and seems to have been meticulously restored from the original elements. Overall, this is a pleasing transfer with few distractions.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: While my initial thought towards the inclusion of a 5.1 track for this dialogue-driven piece was "why bother?", I found that it tastefully complemented the narrative. Dialogue is consistently clear, clean, and locked in the center channel. Though much of the soundtrack is front heavy, the soundstage expands with the presence of the music and occasional sound effects, which blend into the surrounds quite nicely. Bass often sounds warbly and indistinct, yet never terribly overbearing. While certainly not first rate, this is an impressive soundtrack.

Also included is a 2.0 track, by which I was surprised how closely it resembles the 5.1 mix. While the 5.1 audio demonstrates a bit more spaciousness, the 2.0 track is an admirable alternative.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Alpha
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Audio Narrative by Fountain Hughes
  2. Audio Interview by Yvonne Beatty
Extras Review: Though not over abundant with extras, it is evident that significant time and consideration went into creating this collection of special features. First is an audio narrative by Fountain Hughes, one of the real-life slaves featured in Unchained Memories. The original audio track of his testimony is presented with remarkably clear fidelity and read-along text for those who have trouble deciphering his vernacular. This is an excellent complement to Unchained Memories as well as a poignant piece of history preserved.

Next is an audio interview by Yvonne Beatty, whose father, Samuel S. Taylor, was an interviewer for the Federal Writer's Project, Arkansas Unit. This five-minute audio clip mostly finds Yvonne speaking about her father and how she occasionally joined him on his interviews with former slaves. This is another admirable feature made powerful by the fact that we get to hear her speak rather than simply read her words.

The third section presents biographies for the ex-slaves featured in Unchained Memories. This overwhelming collection contains fascinating background information for nearly forty "survivors." It is a comprehensive and tasteful inclusion that adds impact to the power of the narratives in the main feature.

Also included is a DVD-Rom feature that links to the Unchained Memories website, where one can learn more about this fascinating project.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives is a compelling first-hand account of what it was like to be born into bondage. It is a wholly worthwhile documentary that allows us to hopefully gain an understanding of the importance of racial acceptance.

 


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