“Times don’t change, just the merchandise”: Ex-slave Sarah Francis Shaw Graves’ take on the world was an understandably bitter one, and her words provide an unfiltered look at a painful and tragic time in the nation’s history. Against a simple background, directors Ed Bell and Thomas Lennon bring together celebs such as Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle and Oprah Winfrey to provide a picture of daily slave life and bring those stories vividly and hauntingly to life.
“Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives,” produced in association with the Library of Congress, is based on the stories collected by the Work Projects Administrations’ Federal Writers’ Project, whose members traveled the country in the late 1930s documenting the life experiences of more than 100,000 former slaves.
These stories, told in the vernacular of their time, are mixed with archival photos, historical re-creations and current renditions of slave songs and hymns to create an engaging and poignant piece. Instead of the usual voiceover celebrity readings that have become rote in the documentary world, the directors include the actors preparing for their readings, and even relating the tales to their lives and family histories.
It’s a clever device that demonstrates how personal even distant history can be. Mostly, the actors handle the difficult stories about rape, whippings and unbelievable cruelty with dignity and restraint.
While most of the stories depict the horror of the slaves’ predicament, others demonstrate the sheer absurdity of life in enslavement. In one story a man recollects how he was suspended from the ceiling to swat flies from the dinner table. Another talks of risking everything to court a beautiful woman at a neighboring plantation.
At times, Bell and Lennon mistakenly emphasize a dramatic point through repetition and jarring camera work, an unnecessary touch considering the dramatic nature of the subject.
Editors Juliet Weber and Joef Bartz blend the archival footage and re-creations together so seamlessly, it’s almost hard to discern the fact from historical fiction. Although it’s a tribute to the quality and quantity of research for the film, it’s just a little deceptive. Other technical credits, including Patricia Lee Stotter’s original score, are first-rate.