ABOUT Unchained Memories
In the late 1930s, an estimated 100,000 former slaves were still alive in the United States. In the midst of the Great Depression, from 1936 to 1938, more than 2,000 interviews with one-time slaves were conducted for the Work Projects Administration (WPA) via its Federal Writers’ Project, with the transcripts (written in the vernacular of the time) forming a unique firsthand record of slave life. Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives presents dramatic selections from the extensive Slave Narrative Collection through on-camera readings by over a dozen actors, interspersed with archival photographs, music, film and period images.
This 74-minute HBO documentary brings the selected words of these former slaves to life through the voices of celebrated African-American actors – Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the film features emotion-charged readings by Angela Bassett, Michael Boatman, Roscoe Lee Browne, Don Cheadle, Sandra Daley, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Robert Guillaume, Jasmine Guy, Samuel L. Jackson, CCH Pounder, LaTanya Richardson, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Roger Guenveur Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Vanessa L. Williams, Oprah Winfrey and Alfre Woodard. In addition to their in-character readings, the actors sometimes add their own anecdotes and editorial comments, giving a contemporary and emotional perspective to the documentary’s serious subject matter as well as archival photographs, authentic slave-era music performed by the McIntosh County Shouters, and creative footage evoking the brutal legacy of slavery in America. The film was produced in association with the Library of Congress (home of the Slave Narrative Collection and other WPA collections), and is supported by a multifaceted HBO outreach effort.