Freedom Over Me

Nightmare Passage: William Colbert, among those recalling the physical terrain of the Confederacy.Photo: US WPA Records, Library of Congress

During the Great Depression, long before anyone had ever heard of oral history as a respectable academic enterprise, the Works Progress Administration authorized the Federal Writers’ Project to track down and interview as many former slaves as could still be found alive. Between 1936 and 1938, more than 2,000 American citizens in seventeen states talked to these visiting writers about their memories of bondage, from the cotton fields and the whipping post and the lynching tree to the master’s house and the master’s bed. From 600 transcripts, the producers of Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives have selected 45 for the rest of us to eavesdrop on while listening to period slave songs and looking at footage of the physical terrain of the old Confederacy, photographs of the survivors and their era, and the faces of the famous and familiar African-American actors who have agreed to channel the nightmare passage of their ancestors.

These actors include Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Jasmine Guy, CCH Pounder, LaTanya Richardson, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Vanessa L. Williams, and Alfre Woodard. With Whoopi Goldberg on hand to supply the narrative continuity, they tell us about 50,000 runaways a year, up till the Civil War; about the manacles and the mouth bit and the red peppers and salt applied to open wounds; about rape, the hierarchies of servitude, and the underground railroad. On occasion, one or another of the actors will be heard chatting with the director or the cameraman before launching into an impersonation. But always, the stories seem to have been written on their skins; they are reading themselves.

Confronted with such witness, I won’t pretend to objectivity. Trent Lott should be made to see it. And then all of us ought to consult a copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Before writing her ghost history, Morrison flew to Brazil to look at the choke collars and leg irons not to be found in any of our domestic museums. Before the flight of Sethe and her daughter Denver as if out of Egypt, we find ourselves in servitude in Sweet Home, Kentucky, where a cowhide whip leaves a red-rose scar on Sethe’s back, men on the run sleep in coffins and fight for food with owls and pigs, a witless woman will be jailed and hanged for stealing ducks she believes are her babies, and there are black boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamore trees in the world.

Black Filmmaker Showcase is a mixed bag of seven shorts, from Edford Banuel’s eight-minute Unjust Cause to Jacob’s Sound, from previous grant winner Anna Dudley. Look, in particular, for What Wouldn’t Jesus Do??, Rod J. Emelle’s funny visit with the son of God (James Lesure) in present-day L.A. And yes, Dad himself shows up, a pissed-off Harold Sylvester.

Maggie Growls, an engaging video portrait of Maggie Kuhn, the troublemaking senior-citizen radical who founded the Gray Panthers, kicks off a new Tuesday-night documentary series called Independent Lens. In coming weeks, it will look in on a school, a museum, women who fought in the French Resistance, and women who would rather surf.

In Foyle’s War, Michael Kitchen is a detective chief inspector who looks like Saul Bellow and would rather be fighting Hitler than catching ordinary criminals in the spring and summer of 1940. It will, of course, turn out that these ordinary criminals have something to do with espionage, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, plus art theft and T. S. Eliot. You’ve already missed one of these; dumb to go without the rest.

Unchained Memories
February 10; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; HBO.

Black Filmmaker Showcase
February 4; 9 to 11 p.m.; Showtime.

Maggie Growls
February 4; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13.

Foyle’s War
February 9, 16, and 23; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13.

Freedom Over Me