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Memory Of Slaves Lives

February 10, 2003

Memory Enhances the Grimness of Slaves' Lives


Oprah Winfrey asks to see the picture one more time. In it Jennie Proctor looks desolate. She stands on the porch of a shack.

Ms. Winfrey adopts her signature tone of jokey rue: "Jennie's house might be a little better than mine was."

Then she examines the photograph more closely.

"I think our porch was bigger."

Ms. Winfrey's then reads from the memoirs of Proctor, a onetime slave whose recollections were transcribed in dialect in the late 1930's as part of the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. In Proctor's words Ms. Winfrey describes being beaten with a cat o' nine tails, only to have salt rubbed in her wounds. Proctor's crime: eating a biscuit.

"Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives," a documentary based on interviews with Proctor and other ex-slaves and produced by HBO in association with the Library of Congress, will have its premiere on Monday on HBO. The film, along with PBS's "Partners of the Heart," which will also be shown on Monday, are among the most inventive, expressive programs produced this year in observation of Black History Month.

Using readings by celebrities, archival images and period music (including slave-era shout songs) "Unchained Memories" evokes the lives of slaves without trying to pass as social history. Instead it dramatizes the difficulty of creating such a history. These narratives — which touch on violence, rape, farming, plantation hierarchies and the Underground Railroad — are desultory, inhibited, broken off.

As Whoopi Goldberg explains in the voice-over, many ex-slaves declined to be interviewed for the project. Even those who consented were reluctant. "You want me to tell you about slavery days?" one woman asks incredulously. "I could tell you about it all day, but even then you couldn't guess the awfulness of it." James Green, whose narrative is read with virtuosity by Samuel L. Jackson, knows why his own recollections come haltingly: "My memory was owned by John Williams in Petersburg in Virginia."

In addition to the stripped-down scenes of actors reading or conferring with producers in an unadorned studio, "Unchained Memories" uses lavishly produced re-enactments to stage scenes of threshing, escapes by rowboat and funerals for murdered slaves. As in many current television documentaries, few pains are taken to distinguish these artful mini-dramas from actual archival film. In this program, however — where actors create characters from documents — the line between fact and fiction is already blurred, and the re-enactments ultimately contribute to a well-paced pastiche, one whose forceful performances (especially by the brilliant, show-stealing LaTanya Richardson) may make you cry.

The re-enactments in "Partners of the Heart" seem less justified. In various scenes, actors play Vivien Thomas, a mid-century expert on surgical procedures, and Alfred Blalock, a surgeon. A trove of real photographs and film exists of these men, who lived until 1965 and 1985, respectively. At the very least the "stylistic re-creations" (as WGBH, which produced the film, calls them) ought to look different from the period images. As it is the film risks being considered historical fiction and not documentary.

The essential story of a black-white medical partnership, however, is true and compelling. Thomas, a black man, was 19 when Blalock, who was white, hired him as a janitor at Vanderbilt University's medical school. When Thomas showed an aptitude for scientific research, the men began to collaborate, first on shock and later, at Johns Hopkins University, on the plight of "blue babies," children whose body tissues are deprived of oxygen. Inspired by the theories of Helen Taussig, then the chief of pediatric cardiology at Hopkins, Thomas and Blalock developed a means of treating the disorder surgically. Thomas refined the operation on dogs, inventing the tools necessary to perform it.

Finally, in November 1944, with Thomas beside him whispering instructions, Blalock operated on a gravely ill blue baby. The proof of the operation's success showed on the face of the child, whose lips instantly turned pink.

For years Thomas, who had only a high school education, supervised Blalock's surgeries. Promoted to director of Hopkins's surgical research department, Thomas also taught surgical technique. Eventually every would-be surgeon at Hopkins was required to study under him.

At the same time, however, Thomas, for whom Blalock's quasi patronage was a mixed blessing, was paid next to nothing and was routinely shut out of social events at the hospital. Thomas had to work as a bartender to make ends meet. Accustomed to segregation, Thomas's students, who in 1971 commissioned a portrait of him to hang at Hopkins, did not register the cruel paradox at the time. "Partners of the Heart" derives its considerable suspense from the urgent question whether Thomas's contributions to medicine — and his mistreatment in a racist profession and nation — will be acknowledged before he dies.

In the most moving scene, William Grose, currently a physician at Johns Hopkins, says of Thomas: "I don't think any of us realized how bizarre it was to have a person of his talents waiting tables or waiting the bar. He was a heck of a nice . . . ." Dr. Grose then loses his composure, appearing to rummage desperately through a bygone segregationist vocabulary. His eyes fill with tears at some element of the memory.

"Guy," he says, finally.

Readings From the Slave Narratives

HBO, tonight at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time

Produced by Jacqueline Glover; Donna Brown Guillaume, executive producer; Lisa Heller, senior producer for HBO; Sheila Nevins, executive producer for HBO; written by Mark Jonathan Harris; narratives directed by Ed Bell, Wild Brain Inc.

Partners of the Heart

On most PBS stations tonight
(check local listings)

Produced and directed by Andrea Kalin; Duke Media and Spark Media for "American Experience" and WGBH, Boston; Margaret Drain, series executive producer; Mark Samels, senior producer; written by Lou Potter and Ms. Kalin; re-creation sequences directed by Bill Duke; Susan Fanshel, Barbara Burst, editors; original music by Joseph Vitarelli; narrated by Morgan Freema


Virginia Heffernan is the television critic for Slate.

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