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Howard Zinn on TV: A Review

Historians/History




Mr. Trautman is on the faculty of the Peace and World Order Studies program at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, MA. Brian is on the board of the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA), an assistant editor with the U.S. Peace Registry of the U.S. Peace Memorial Foundation, Inc., and a member of Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice (BCP&J).

"The People Speak" premieres on The History Channel Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 8:00p.m. (ET).

In January 2008 I had the great privilege of being part of a live audience at Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, MA for the filming of a cutting edge documentary called The People Speak. Waiting in line to gain entry to the theatre, I made new friends who shared common interests for being there, including the understanding that we were about to partake and share in something truly special. Even with this level of individual and collective awareness, however, I could not imagine that I would come to appreciate and value the experience as one of the most meaningful and memorable of my life.

Dr. Howard Zinn, internationally acclaimed historian, scholar, author, playwright and social activist, is the architect and driving force of The People Speak. The documentary is inspired both by Zinn’s best-selling and groundbreaking book A People's History of the United States and its primary-source companion Voices of a People's History of the United States,the latter of which Zinn co-edited with Anthony Arnove, literary writer, agent and activist. The collaboration is co-directed by Zinn and Arnove and award-winning Project Greenlight producer Chris Moore (who brought us the 1997 hit film Good Will Hunting). Howard Zinn is joined by actor and philanthropist Ben Affleck for the film’s narration.

Dramatic and musical performances chronicle the history of individual and group grassroots efforts to engender progressive change toward political, social, economic and environmental justice in this country. It is the story of the real American heroes—the common people—who dissented for greater equality and justice and agitated for civil and human rights. The People Speak tells of the extraordinary and courageous acts of everyday people, many of whom were thrust into leadership roles, not always by choice, as a result of their genuine concern for and ambition to improve the lives and represent the needs and interests of their contemporaries’. Many times they were the populations of the traditionally underrepresented, underprivileged, and marginalized; those outside of the political and economic establishment, who dissented and engaged in civil disobedience to build and steer the movements for change that gave us many of the democratic institutions and rights we enjoy today.  The People Speak brings these stories to life again.

By way of charter documents, letters, diaries, journal entries, and more, The People Speak seeks to grow our awareness and inspire, embolden and call us to action for fairness, access and equality by enlightening us about the acts and achievements of determined everyday people whose unwavering commitments enhanced our freedom and liberty. In most cases, these people along with their brave efforts were trivialized or ignored by our government altogether, at least at the time. Nevertheless, these are the individuals who were responsible for facilitating an end to slavery and Jim Crow, to war and the genocide of Native Americans; they built labor unions and gave us the eight hour work day and other worker rights; they advanced women's rights, spoke out and defended the gay community, and struggled to right other wrongs which were, and are in many cases still today, built into our political and social systems, and driven by greed, power, and self-interest, to dominate, control, exploit and oppress people.

The People Speak brings to the screen the actions and effects of dissent, civil disobedience, and agitation for equality and justice. The documentary explains why resistance at the grassroots is not something dictated by a specific time period, but rather it must be considered and understood as a continuous struggle. It brings to light little known voices from U.S. history, including those of women, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and laborers. By giving public expression to rebels, dissenters, and visionaries from our past (and present) we work to educate and inspire a new generation of people working for social justice. It is not government that is responsible for giving us the rights we as Americans hold so dear, rather it is everyday people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. The People Speak is based on this principle. The documentary shares with us the voices of the people who fought and bled and died for the democracy we have today; the people who gave us the freedoms we have today; the people who gave us the liberties we take for granted. The People Speak reminds us of the importance and relevance of our histories, many of which are not included in our conventional history books, but which are nonetheless as or more important as those we as an American culture recognize and celebrate widely, e.g., the policy decisions and behavior of our wartime military and political leaders.

In an age when we continue to witness a disregard by our government of the individual and social values held by the majority of Americans, this project is a timely reminder of why we must stand up, organize, and take nonviolent direct action to demand an end to the structural violence entrenched in our political, economic, and social systems. 

The People Speak offers rousing performances by today’s most talented and accomplished actors, poets and musical artists, including Reg E. Cathey (Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation” - 1857); Christina Kirk (Susan B. Anthony's suffrage trial - 1873); Viggo Mortensen (“Plough Jogger on Shay’s Rebellion” - 1786); Marisa Tomei (Cindy Sheehan, “It’s Time the Antiwar Choir Started Singing” - 2005); Michael Ealy (Malcolm X, “Message to the Grass Roots” -1963); Danny Glover (Langston Hughes, “Ballad of Roosevelt” - 1934); Michael O’Malley (Abbie Hoffman, “Closing Argument” - 1987); Josh Brolin (Dalton Trumbo, “Johnny Got His Gun” - 1939); David Strathairn (“Admiral Gene Larocque Speaks to Studs Terkel About “The Good War” - 1985); Kerry Washington (Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” - 1851); and, Staceyann Chin (North Star Editorial, “The War with Mexico” - 1848). One of the most powerful and unforgettable moments of the documentary is the musical performance by Grammy award-winning recording artist John Legend (Marvin Gaye, “What’s Goin On” - 1971). Other cast members and collaborators on this project include Hollywood hard-hitters Matt Damon, Rosario Dawson, Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Kathleen Chalfant, and Benjamin Bratt.

Some viewers of the film may question why celebrities were invited to tell the remarkable stories of average Americans, especially when celebrities are typically anything but average. My response is that many Americans today closely identify with and follow the lives of celebrities. Given this popular culture in America, perhaps many more people will take something more away from this documentary than would have otherwise if lesser known artists were delivering the performances. The diverse and seasoned talent assembled for this film brings to the screen an authentic and impassioned dedication and energy that may open the minds and hearts of many Americans to the significance of the voices of ordinary people and their extraordinary and monumental efforts and achievements for an American society based on and in support of the principles of democracy, freedom, civil/human rights, and equal access and opportunity.

One of the powers of this documentary is that it inspires contemporary civic engagement to create real and meaningful change in the ways in which our government and social institutions operate. It brings to light how ordinary Americans have and can continue to make a difference by questioning conventional wisdom and unjust and inhumane policies and practices of our political, economic and social systems – to facilitate and foster positive and sustainable peace and progressive change for current and future generations.”

The partnership between HISTORY and The People Speak for broadcast and outreach of the film is a fitting match. According to Chris Moore, “HISTORY…is the perfect home for The People Speak…Not only will the film strongly resonate with viewers and with our constituents, but the dedication of the talent to this cause, coupled with the educational and content initiatives, makes this an incredible win.” This is an agreeable assessment.

If you are like me and care deeply for civil and human rights and building a culture of lasting peace and sustainability through the vehicles of democracy, freedom and justice then I believe this documentary is for you. The care and diligence of the directors, producers and performers as they told these stories is revealed in the brilliant product that is The People Speak. The film will turn many heads and have Americans talking—and hopefully agitating nonviolently for social justice—until structural violence and injustice have been eliminated from all our domestic and global institutions and establishments.


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Edrene S McKay - 12/11/2009

Thank you for the detailed description of the film. I found it very informative. Howard Zinn and those who contributed to the film are making a valuable contribution to public discourse at a crucial time in our history. We are at a crossroads right now, when peace and the public interest, are less than popular. We need a new direction and Howard Zinn can provide it, as he has done in the past.


Lewis Bernstein - 12/11/2009

I remember Howard Zinn from seeing him in action at several learned society meetings and close interaction with him as a visiting speaker in Idaho. He was extremely rude and contemptuous of anyone who did not share his ideological predilections. This encomium from Professor Trautman should embarrass him as he has apparently shut down his critical faculties and has openly joined Howard's claque.


J R Willis - 12/10/2009

Your screed would have been more interesting if it had been proofread, contained historically valuable information, and had not involved a sales pitch.

Otherwise, a solid "C-".