Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives

Director: Ed Bell
Screenwriters: Mark Jonathan Harris

Institute History

  • 2003 Sundance Film Festival


"I got about 85 years of memories to call on. I'm 90." The words are those of a man who was emancipated from slavery six decades earlier, but like all of the recollections culled into a heart-wrenching and hopeful firsthand recounting of slavery in Unchained Memories, he indeed has a lifetime of stories to share.

During the 1930s, journalists of the Federal Writing Program conducted more than 200,000 interviews that were transcribed verbatim and collected for the Library of Congress into vivid, exhaustive, but rarely heard narratives on slave life. Through passionate readings by a distinguished cast that includes Don Cheadle, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, and Oprah Winfrey, among others, we hear accounts of vicious, inhuman treatment: One man describes what happened when you did something wrong—"Then they'd beat you cross-wise, so your flesh would cut up in squares." Yet through the horror shines defiance: Another recalls his choice to escape rather than obey his master's order to kill a fellow slave—"Today I is a old man, and my hands ain't stained with no blood."

Narrator Whoopi Goldberg's focus on the everyday lives of slaves is woven together with antebellum photographs, Depression-era film footage, and lively "shout" songs to illustrate the point that is most often repeated in these firsthand accounts: For the victims of the most atrocious chapter in American history, emancipation may have been overdue, but their spirits were free long before their bodies were.

— Shan Fowler

Screening Details

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