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Howard Zinn’s The People Speak: A People’s History on TV At Last

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Radical historian Howard Zinn passed away today at the age of 87. This is a huge loss to the movement for social justice in the U.S. and around the world, but Zinn leaves an important body of work behind. Here we re-publish a review of his documentary, The People Speak, which premiered on the History Channel in December, and is undoubtedly among the best programs in TV history.

Socialist historian Howard Zinn’s documentary The People Speak, which premiered on the History Channel on December 13, is undoubtedly among the best programs in TV history.

The People Speak is based on Zinn’s famous book A People’s History of the United States, which tells the story of the U.S. from the perspective of workers, slaves, African-Americans, women, Native Americans, immigrants, and LGBT people – rather than from the perspective of the businessmen, politicians, and generals, as is usually the case in school textbooks. The two-hour documentary features readings taken from the collection Voices of A People’s History of the United States, which brings together speeches and writings from social justice activists throughout U.S. history – from abolitionists and labor organizers to suffragettes and anti-war activists.

The speeches are performed by a star-studded cast, including Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Jasmine Guy, Viggo Mortensen, Marisa Tomei, Danny Glover, Stacey Ann Chin, and Darryl McDaniels (of Run DMC). There are musical performances by Bob Dylan, John Legend, Eddie Vedder, and Bruce Springsteen. These are all tied together by Zinn’s narration, which explains the class struggles at the heart of U.S. history, as ordinary working people have fought for civil rights and a better life in the face of repression and exploitation by slaveowners, capitalists, and their political representatives.

The documentary highlights immensely important lessons for anyone interested in achieving genuine change today in the age of Obama. The main message of The People Speak, as with Zinn’s other work, is that progressive change is achieved from below, by ordinary people who decide to act against injustice – not by Democratic politicians or “great men.” As the famous ex-slave and abolitionist activist Frederick Douglass put it, in a speech read by Don Cheadle in The People Speak, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

This is a particularly important message right now. Less than a year into his presidency, Obama has disappointed millions of his supporters who expected his administration to enact genuine change. Instead, we have gotten 50,000 more troops to Afghanistan, a growing military budget, more bailouts for the banks, a betrayal of labor’s hopes for EFCA, virtually no progress on LGBT rights, and a health care reform that will lack even a mild public option and throw billions more at the insurance companies. Millions are asking what happened, why the hopes they put in Obama are being dashed, and whether serious change can actually be achieved in the U.S.

But as Zinn writes, “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.” It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency, that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.

The People Speak shows examples of this process in U.S. history. In particular, the example of the Great Depression and the FDR administration is a telling one. The documentary includes Danny Glover’s performance of Langston Hughes’ poem “Ballad of Roosevelt,” which details the frustration faced by millions suffering from unemployment, eviction, and hunger during the Depression, who were “Waitin’ on Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt.” Zinn explains how action on these issues was only achieved owing to mass struggles, often led by socialists and other radicals. While numerous progressive reforms were enacted under FDR – from Social Security benefits, to massive public works programs, to aid to the unemployed – these were only achieved thanks to intense pressure from below, as workers went on strike, communities organized to stop evictions through direct action, and unemployed people marched on city halls and state governments to demand relief. There is gripping footage from the sit-down strike at General Motors in Flint, Michigan in the winter of 1936-1937, behind the words of strike leader Genora Johnson Dollinger, who organized a Women’s Auxiliary Brigade.

Also particularly powerful was Matt Damon’s reading of the words of Tom Joad from John Steinbeck’s depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath. This book should be at the top of reading lists in these times of double-digit unemployment, mass foreclosures, and skyrocketing hunger. Joad says, “I been thinkin’ a hell of a lot, thinkin’ about our people livin’ like pigs, an’ the good rich lan’ layin’ fallow, or maybe one fella with a million acres, while a hunderd thousan’ good farmers is starvin’. An I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together an’ yelled, like them [rich] fellas yelled …”

Joad’s words resonated, as we again and again see our government entirely beholden to the lobbyists of the banking, insurance, pharmaceutical, and war-profiteering industries, while workers are left without a voice. This points to the desperate need for working people and youth to organize a party of our own to challenge the corporate-dominated two-party system and give voice to our demands – for universal, affordable, not-for-profit health care, decent living wage jobs, affordable housing, an end to the wars, equal rights for LGBT people, an end to the racist war on drugs and police brutality, etc.

Muhammad Ali’s explanation of his refusal to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, for which he was sentenced to 5 years in prison and stripped of his heavyweight title, is also included. Speaking out against the war in 1966, Ali said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Ironically, just weeks before announcing he was sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to drop bombs and bullets on brown people there, President Obama wrote a tribute to Ali in USA Today, claiming him as one of his heroes.

This is why Zinn’s documentary is so important, because it presents a history of resistance that has too often been hidden from high school textbooks and the corporate media.

Corporate-Controlled Media

The fact that this type of program so rarely makes it onto television, despite the hundreds of channels now in existence, exposes what a crime the corporate control over the media is. Instead of more inspiring documentaries about people who have made heroic sacrifices in the fight for a better world, we get shows like “Mall Cops” and “Survivor.” The media claims it is just giving the people what they want to see, but how many people really think there should be dozens of dating shows and almost never anything on the collective struggles of ordinary people that have shaped this country? The truth is, reality shows and other such programs are made because they are profitable and non-controversial, and thus popular with advertisers.

Why has Hollywood has never produced a movie about the life of Eugene Debs, or Sojourner Truth, or John Brown, or nearly any of the other fighters for social justice featured in The People Speak, whose lives are surely of more interest to millions of Americans than the latest Twilight saga? Clearly the talent exists, given the big-name stars who participated in this project, but the stranglehold over the film industry by a few giant corporations prevents such works from being made.

Above all, this documentary is a call to action. The final performance is by Stacey Ann Chin, who performs the poem “The Low Road” by Marge Piercy, an extremely moving invocation to the strength of solidarity. The film ends with Bruce Springsteen performing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a reminder that this country does not belong to the bankers, CEOs, and politicians, but rather, to ordinary, hard-working Americans – if we get organized and fight for it.

Go out and buy the DVD when it’s released in January, and show it to as many people as possible.

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