The Chains Remain

HBO slavery documentary saddens as it informs; Oakland barroom comedy pays its tab handsomely.

If America is ever going to get over its preoccupation with race, it’s going to take a lot of work. Watching Ed Bell and Thomas Lennon’s Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives often seems like work — it’s a heartbreaking film, with revulsion, enmity, and shame to go around — but it falls easily into the category of Essential Viewing because it grabs the bull, the American slavery bull, by the horns and never lets go.

The historical documentary, produced by HBO and receiving its West Coast theatrical premiere Saturday, February 1 at a special screening at Calvin Simmons Theatre in Oakland, had its origins in a government project of the 1930s — when some 100,000 African-American former slaves were still alive — to record the oral histories of as many ex-slaves as the Federal Writers’ Project could locate. The Slave Narratives have resided in the Library of Congress ever since, until the producers gathered together a distinguished group of black actors — including Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Don Cheadle, Oprah Winfrey, CCH Pounder, and Michael Boatman, with narrator Whoopi Goldberg — to give dramatic readings of these accounts of one of this country’s most shameful legacies, accompanied by amazing archival photos and reenactments.

SF-based filmmaker Bell (“We wanted it to leave you with a message of hope,” he said of the film on his way to screen it at Sundance), exec-producer Donna Brown Guillaume, and actress Jasmine Guy will join author William B. Gould IV, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and Dimensions Dance Theatre at Saturday night’s event, 7 p.m. A limited number of free tickets are available by calling 415-765-7793. Unchained Memories airs on HBO, Monday, February 10 at 8 p.m.

Good for what ales you: If we told you that a group of local filmmakers and actors led by a couple of Pizza Rustica deliverymen shot a feature-length comedy about a bunch of slackers spending all their waking hours (and their passed-out ones, as well) in Cato’s Ale House on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, you’d expect a beery night at the movies. But Leisure, the refreshingly well-written and ably acted slice of East Bay life by writer-director Chris Horvath and his friends, pulls off a character coup. It’s funnier than any movie made for $5,000 (Horvath’s pizza tips) has any right to be, thanks to the naturalistic acting of Horvath, composer-actor Chris Ferreira (Groove), actor Michael Goorjian (he made Oakland Underground and acted in SLC Punk!, Party of Five, etc.), Alex Smith (Cato’s real-life bartender), and Burgin Bailey as Hank, the boozy fan you’ve seen stumbling down the aisle at every A’s game you’ve ever been to. Leisure screens Tuesday, February 4, 9:15 p.m., at the Parkway, with an after-party at Cato’s. Visit

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