For Howard Zinn, some things never change. Backstage at the Atlanta Film Festival, after screening his new documentary, The People Speak, to a crowd of conservative Southerners, former civil-rights leaders, and a handful of rock stars, the 87-year-old historian waxes philosophical about bombs in Baghdad and the new president's promise of change: "Obama's [the one who] said, 'We must not just get out of Iraq, but we must get out of the mindset that got us into Iraq,' " he says. "Well, Obama himself has not yet gotten out of that mindset. He's asking for money for health care and education, so he is going in the right direction. But you have to be a lot more bold than that." (Article continued below…)
Being bold was never an issue for Zinn; he's been protesting wars since he returned home from World War II. Yet mainstream acceptance has eluded him, thanks in part to a perspective so leftist that even many of the longtime Boston University professor's outspoken Hollywood supporters appear moderate by comparison. The Dec. 13 television premiere of The People Speak on the History Channel—based on the source documents Zinn used for his controversial 1980 revisionist textbook, A People's History of the United States—aims to change all that. The activism-themed documentary's arrival toward the end of Obama's first year in office couldn't be more timely: in the midst of economic woes and health-care debates that have regular citizens on both sides of the aisle up in arms, The People Speak hits at a time when few Americans are inclined to believe everything that those in power tell them.
But can a celebrity-heavy documentary about the untold stories in American history have a real impact on the way Americans view both the history of their country and their right as free citizens to organize in protest when they disagree with official policies? Or will Zinn's work continue to languish in cult status while other, more contrarian left-wingers, like filmmaker Michael Moore, get all the glory?
It might be easy for actor Josh Brolin, one of the stars and executive producers of the film, or for History Channel president and general manager Nancy Dubuc, who was a student of Zinn's at Boston University, or even for actor Matt Damon, who also executive-produced the project and grew up in the house right next door to Zinn's, to connect with the film's tag line and message: "Democracy is not a spectator sport." But will Middle Americans—who may only know Zinn as a Vietnam-era crony of Noam Chomsky's or as one of the writers Damon's character extols in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, if they know him at all—find the spoken-word passages, songs, and archival footage in The People Speak eye-opening? For their part, Damon and the other actors and musicians involved in the film believe they will.
With readings from letters, speeches, and even the Declaration of Independence, The People Speak brings both traditional and little-known historical figures like Sojourner Truth, John Brown, and Cindy Sheehan to life in raw performances by Damon, Brolin, Marisa Tomei, Don Cheadle, Kerry Washington, and others.
"You're seeing actors read these incredibly dramatic passages in the history of our country, so it's not at all about, 'Oh, it's Sean Penn reading this,' " Damon says. "It's more like, 'Wow, this is Kevin Tillman talking.' Or it's David Strathairn, but he's now John Brown. These are all speeches and letters and diary entries and things that were actually said by regular people. That's what's so moving about it."
And while it's likely that the participation of big names will shine some light on Zinn, the stars are equally happy to be involved with such an iconic (and iconoclastic) figure.
"When you have someone [like Zinn] who's charismatic, who's intelligent, and who has a book that actually sells more copies every year since its release, you want to attach yourself to him, because that makes you look cool or whatever," Brolin says. "But if you really believe in the book … it's not just a vanity thing. I read A People's History for the first time when I was 16 or 17. And before I even met Howard, the reason my daughters go to the school that they do is because they use his book as part of the curriculum."
Assembled from clips of more than 60 live stage adaptations of A People's History performed around the country since 2003, The People Speak is part of a larger movement to bring the unsung heroes of American history, and Zinn, broader recognition. Interest in Zinn's work has been growing—though it remains largely a favorite of liberals and academics, A People's History has sold more than 1 million copies since 2000, as many as it had sold in the two decades before that—and led to the formation of Voices, a nonprofit arts, education, and social-justice organization, in 2007. The History Channel is also producing 24 short films based on The People Speak for educational use in schools around the country in conjunction with existing resources, such as the abridged textbook, A Young People's History of the United States.
"To be on History is huge for [Zinn's] material, because it's such a compelling presentation and it can reach so many people who would not have heard of the book," Damon says, "and hopefully get people thinking critically about the history they're being told, and about their own role in shaping the country."
A lack of hype may have kept Zinn out of the spotlight, but he's nonetheless racked up a long list of folks who appreciate his unwavering dedication to activism. "He's been a constant source of hope and empowerment to so many," says Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who first met Zinn in the 1990s and contributed a cover of Bob Dylan's song "Masters of War" to The People Speak. "He's taught me so much. Not just about what's in books and history, but also about how to live."
With The People Speak, it looks like Howard Zinn may finally get his close-up. As for the term "radical," Zinn doesn't mind it. "After all," he says, "peace is a radical idea. But it's an idea whose time has come."