“Proudly, unabashedly radical, with a mop of white hair and bushy eyebrows and an impish smile, Mr. Zinn, who retired from the history faculty at Boston University two decades ago, delighted in debating ideological foes, not the least his own college president, and in lancing what he considered platitudes, not the least that American history was a heroic march toward democracy.” reads the two-week old New York Times obituary for legendary leftist historian Howard Zinn. Zinn, whose “People’s History” books have revolutionized the field of popular American histories, compiled a number of stories from Americans whose stories are underrepresented in American history for a collection, “The People Speak.” Zinn brought “People” live to the 2009 Sundance Film Festival as a spoken word event. A film version of “The People Speak,” directed by film producer Chris Moore, which had its world premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival and aired on The History Channel, comes to DVD today.
Reporting on the film’s TV debut, The New York Times‘ Brian Stelter reports, “Some of the readings, like Ms. [Marisa] Tomei’s, are especially resonant now, given the perceptible anger in the country about banks and bailouts. ‘That’s by design,’ Mr.[Matt] Damon said. ‘What they were up against oftentimes are exactly the same things we’re up against now.’ One scene in the two-hour film tells the story of an organizer who encouraged tenants to protest evictions during the Great Depression. Similarly, in the current economic downturn, ‘We’ve seen examples of people rebelling,’ Mr. Zinn, 87, said. ‘We’ve seen tenants rebelling against foreclosures. This is the kind of thing that happened in a much larger scale in the 1930s.’ He added, ‘If this spreads — the idea of fighting foreclosures, the idea of workers going on strike — it’s possible this can lead into a larger movement for economic justice.'” Featuring an all star cast (Allison Moorer, Benjamin Bratt, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Chris Robinson, Christina Kirk, Danny Glover, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, David Strathairn, Don Cheadle, Eddie Vedder, Harris Yulin, Jasmine Guy, John Legend, Josh Brolin, Kathleen Chalfant, Kerry Washington, Lupe Fiasco, Marisa Tomei, Mart’n Espada, Matt Damon, Michael Ealy, Mike O’Malley, Morgan Freeman, P!nk, Q’orianka Kilcher, Reg E. Cathey, Rich Robinson, Rosario Dawson, Sandra Oh, Sean Penn, Staceyann Chin, and Viggo Mortensen…to name a few) reciting Zinn’s collection of first-hand accounts, the film has become somewhat of a sensation on the Left.
Writing on the Home Theater Forum, Ed Faver recalls, “In Good Will Hunting, the title charater refers to the work of Howard Zinn as a ‘mind-blowing’ view of American history. It turns out that Matt Damon is a big fan of Zinn’s work in life as well. He spent the better part of 10 years trying to bring Zinn’s work to the screen in some fashion. The People Speak is a ‘concert’ inspired by Zinn’s book…Taken together, the readings, music, and words of Zinn make for a thought-provoking, alternate view of America that needs to be seen and heard.” Reg Seeton, writing on The Deadbolt blog, similarly praises the doc, “Filled with gripping words from the voices of some of the most notable names in American history and the direct quotes of the many faceless, marginalized, unheard and forgotten citizens that labored to create the infrastructure of the United States, The People Speak is a must see event for all Americans currently adjusting to the new age of change since, as Howard Zinn and The People Speak reveals, democracy comes from the bottom up.”
On the Big Hollywood blog, John Nolte is not so enthusiastic about the project, saying, “nothing with these types is ever as advertised. Hell, the very foundation of “The People Speak” is an audacious lie. We’re told the program will introduce us to “dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries and speeches of everyday Americans.” You know, everyday Americans like Muhammad Ali, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie, Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Dalton Trumbo, Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X, Susan Walker and John Steinbeck. Looks as though the definition of “everyday American” now means someone famous who once wrote something the less famous would like to read for the History Channel. Other than discovering that grunge music isn’t dead and seeing Marisa Tomei in a late-career performance where she keeps her clothes on, nothing in “The People Speak” surprised – including its lack of success as a piece of leftist agit-prop.”
Listen to a Democracy Now! tribute to Zinn from Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein and Anthony Arnove here.