Americans have always used the past to justify their current political desires. To mention just two examples, in its Popular Front phrase (roughly 1935-1945), the Communist Party wrapped itself in the words of Lincoln and Jefferson and sloganized that “Communism is 20th Century Americanism”. On the right, present-day Tea Partiers claim a historical connection to the workingmen, ruffians and rabble who dumped British tea into the Boston harbor.
Another attempt to look at aspects of American history as a means toward understanding what we face today is provided in The People Speak, a documentary based on the best-selling books of radical historian/activist Howard Zinn, who passed away in late January at the age of 87. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980, and Voices of a People’s History of the United States, a companion collection of primary sources edited by Zinn and Anthony Arnove, provide the source material for a celebration in spoken word and song of those who made history from the bottom up.
The idea, developed by executive producers Zinn, Arnove, director Chris Moore and actors Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, is to look at American history through the gaze of its radicals, dissenters, abolitionists, trade unionists, feminists, socialists, Native Americans, civil rights workers and anti-war activists — instead of America’s presidents, generals and corporate leaders.
To present those viewpoints, expressed in speeches, essays, letters, court testimony and song, the producers recruited an all-star cast of actors and musicians to recite and perform. The cast is well-stocked with Academy Award winners (Morgan Freeman, Marisa Tomei, Sean Penn) and other talented actors such as Danny Glover, David Strathairn, Sandra Oh, Don Cheadle, Rosario Dawson, Viggo Mortensen, Damon and Brolin, as well as musicians of the stature of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder and John Legend. Paintings, photographs and footage from movies, newsreels and television provide some additional visual interest.
Zinn serves as the program’s narrator, and in his introductory remarks he sets up the contrast between the haves and the have-nots, corporate power vs. people power and other struggles that have been fought throughout America’s history. Although we occasionally hear some radical rhetoric coming from a famous figure or group — such as Damon’s reading of excerpts from the Declaration of Independence or the speeches and writings of notable dissenters like Susan B. Anthony, Eugene V. Debs and Cesar Chavez — many of the presentations represent the thoughts of authors and activists not familiar to a majority of Americans.
The People Speak, which at 113-minutes includes 25-minutes of performances not shown during the program’s television debut on the History Channel last December, was filmed over several performances at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre and the Malibu Performing Arts Center in California.
The greatest stain on America’s legacy — slavery and its aftermath — and the struggle against these injustices provides some of the most powerful moments in The People Speak. These include Morgan Freeman’s reading of former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass’ angry speech from the 1850s on the hypocrisy of July 4th celebrations, John Legend’s rendition of the anti-slavery song “No More Auction Block”, Benjamin Bratt’s reading of a letter by a runaway slave named J.W. Loguen to his former master, David Strathairn’s performance of John Brown’s address to the court that would sentence him to hang and Kerry Washington’s reading of a speech by Underground Railroad organizer Sojourner Truth.
Among the most moving musical performances, in addition to Legend’s, are Allison Moorer’s bluesy version of Yip Harburg’s Depression Era “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Chris and Rich Robinson’s passionate treatment of Neil Young’s “Ohio”, about the murder of four anti-war protesters at Kent State University, Vedder’s harrowing version of Dylan’s “Masters of War” and Springsteen’s heartfelt version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”.
The film also includes some biographical information about Zinn, who was a bombardier during World War II, an enthusiastic participant in the struggle for civil rights and the movement against the War in Vietnam, and the author of SNCC: The New Abolitionists and Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal before writing A People’s History, which has sold more than two million copies. The DVD features some behind-the-scenes footage of the actors and musicians, as well as some brief interviews in which the participants explain why they took part in the project.
The People Speak represents the culmination of a decades-old friendship between Zinn and Damon, and their connection is long and deep. Damon and Zinn were Boston-area neighbors during Damon’s youth, and Damon has told the story of bringing an early copy of A People’s History to school as a 10-year-old to dispute his teacher’s remarks about Christopher Columbus.
Damon gave a famous shout-out to the historian in his and Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning script for Good Will Hunting. In that 1997 hit, Damon’s character Will Hunting recommends Zinn’s book to his therapist, played by Robin Williams. Shortly thereafter, Zinn and Damon began exploring ways to bring A People’s History to the screen. Along the way, Damon joined Zinn in reading the audio version A People’s History, and the actor served as narrator for the 2004 documentary about Zinn’s life and work, Howard Zinn: You Can’t Stay Neutral on a Moving Train.
But after a decade of stops and starts, including negotiations with Fox TV for a miniseries, they decided to make the current documentary, with Damon providing some of the financing. The results were presented at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, and then Zinn and Damon took The People Speak on a tour of US college campuses.
Not surprisingly, some on the right, like David Horowitz and Michelle Malkin, have been virtually apoplectic in their condemnation of Zinn’s work and his link to Hollywood stars like Damon. And some leftist historians like Michael Kazin have been critical of aspects of Zinn’s A People’s History, particularly for treating America’s ruling elite as a transhistorical monolith and not explaining why the good ideas put forth by his protagonists failed to produce significant opposition to capitalist authority.
Nevertheless, the legacy of Howard Zinn’s life and work is the dissenting tradition in American history and the belief that it is a citizen’s duty to speak up and fight back against oppression. The aim of The People Speak is to spur audiences to take action — its slogan is “Democracy is not a Spectator Sport”.
To paraphrase Tom Joad’s great speech at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, words that are included in The People Speak, wherever there’s a struggle for peace and social justice, Howard Zinn will be there.