Flicks - Unchained medley

Star power nearly distracts from the power of Slave Narratives

It's little wonder that HBO's Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives has so much talent on display. The documentary gives voice to the Library of Congress' Slave Narrative Collection, and one imagines celebrities lining up to participate in such a prestigious and high-minded project. Unchained Memories features passages read by Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Angela Bassett and Don Cheadle, with Whoopi Goldberg narrating.

The collection consists of 2,000 interviews with former slaves, conducted in 17 states from 1936 to 1938 by the Federal Writer's Project, representing some of the last eyewitness accounts of American lives in chains. Airing Feb. 14 at 6:45 p.m., Unchained Memories can be a remarkably powerful film, but it includes structural and storytelling quirks that distract from its strengths.

Mark Jonathan Harris, writer of the Oscar-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers, provides Unchained Memories with a script that gives a cradle-to-grave overview of the slave experience. Early in the film, interviewees talk about spending their childhoods as playmates for the slaveholders' children. One recalls being told by an owner's son, "He bought you to play with me."

The film goes on to reveal the different classes among slaves, from field hands to house slaves, who had the mixed blessing of working indoors — under the direct gaze of their owners. Archival photographs and subtle recreations flesh out accounts of courtship and marriages among slaves, which were often undermined by the sexual prerogatives of the owners. Actress C.C.H. Pounder describes one woman who successfully resists such advances, but we hear other stories of women who weren't so fortunate.

Unchained Memories provides fresh reminders of the system's astonishing cruelty. Several accounts describe slaves being whipped and then having salt rubbed in their wounds, while another talks about "checkering" — being lashed across the back vertically, then horizontally. Perhaps the most ghastly detail involves a runaway woman attacked by dogs that "tore the breast right off her." She survived, but had to have other women nurse her children.

The documentary instills outrage not just through stories of atrocity, but through the commonplace details that reveal injustice, like the way men and women at slave auctions were called "bucks" and "wenches," or the decades of suffering in the simple statement, "I never knows what it was to rest."

Unchained Memories frustrates by taking more of a macro than a micro approach. It offers an anecdote and a weathered snapshot of a former slave, gets us interested, then moves on to someone else entirely, leaving us curious about the history of the person we just glimpsed. We see little pieces of many people, but the documentary could have been stronger had it given the arcs of the lives of fewer subjects. But perhaps that reflects the nature of the original documents.

An exception is Courtney Vance reading Arnold Gragston's accounts of ferrying runaway slaves across a river to the free state of Ohio. Vance conveys Gragston's fear the first time he reluctantly aids an escape and how on subsequent passages, he seldom knew his passengers by face or voice, because they had to be made in complete silence on dark, moonless nights. After the story, we see an outtake of Vance commenting, "It's an amazing disconnect" not to be able to know one's savior.

Unchained Memories may be too eager to show off the talent at work. The documentary makes the understandable but misguided decision to cut back and forth between the archival images and video footage of the actors, wearing black clothes against a black background, performing text for the camera. It makes us too conscious of the artifice of acting, especially when the camera zooms in for extreme close-ups: LaTanya Richardson's face so fills the frame, it's as if the lens is inches from her nose.

The device can't help but yank us from the 19th century to 2003. We hear, for instance, a revealing bit about the process of singing in the fields, then cut to the speaker and, hey! — it's Vanessa Williams! Oprah Winfrey gives a dignified reading of an enslaved woman's secret attempts to learn to read, but seeing Winfrey completely upstages the story. The documentary should have taken a lesson from Ken Burns' documentaries like The Civil War, which know that celebrities are better heard and not seen.

At times, the actors' charisma fits their subjects, like when Don Cheadle, speaking the words of a runaway slave, softens his steely gaze at the thought of freedom's limitless possibilities. Samuel L. Jackson relates Marshall Butler's story about a young man being beaten and chased by white guards, known as "paddy-rollers," for visiting a slave woman on another plantation — and then chuckling that this particular woman made the beating worthwhile.

Unchained Memories doesn't seem to know what to do with its many virtues. When it repeatedly shows the McIntosh County Shouters performing spirited versions of traditional songs, the documentary feels padded. It's best in moments like Ruby Dee's account of a slave's first moment of freedom, when the film simply lets the words and the voices speak for themselves.