The People Speak“To live now, as human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

In these days of sneering Republicans determined to block even the slightest move forward, cowardly Democrats unwilling to use their majority position to any advantage, a thus far ineffective President, and a Supreme Court that has decided that it’s alright to sell our government to the highest bidder, the loss of the sane progressive voice of Howard Zinn is keenly felt. Fortunately, we now have the DVD version of The People Speak, which originally aired on The History Channel last December.

The film, directed by Chris Moore, was inspired by Zinn’s award-winning 1980 book, A People’s History of the United States, and is narrated by Zinn. It features actors and musicians speaking the words and singing the songs of a wide variety of rebels, dissenters, curmudgeons, and patriots from the Revolutionary War era to the present day. Among the actors are Matt Damon and Josh Brolin (who are also producers on the film), David Strathairn, Don Cheadle, Jasmine Guy, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Rosario Dawson, Viggo Mortensen, Benjamin Bratt, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, and Sandra Oh. Their sources include Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, Muhammed Ali, Chief Joseph, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Brown, Cesar Chavez, and other American freedom fighters.

The musicians include John Legend, who performs a stirring version of “No More Auction Block,” Eddie Vedder singing Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Chris and Rich Robinson doing Neil Young’s “Ohio,” Allison Moorer with “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?”, Bob Dylan, Van Dyke Parks, and Ry Cooder performing Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” and Bruce Springsteen closing the film with his rendition of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

For ten years, the film’s producers had been trying to find a way to create a visual representation of Zinn’s book. In the early stages, the project was at Fox (oddly enough), until creative differences (imagine that!), resulted in a move to HBO, where a miniseries was considered. When that didn’t work out, the stage presentation was developed, and that resulted in this film. Many of the performers have been presenting this show at theaters throughout the United States since 2003. The performances documented here are from the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, and the Malibu Performing Arts Center in 2008 and 2009.

The point of all of this, and of Zinn’s book, is that there is more to the history of this country than what is written in our history books. There is another, too often untold story. It is the story of the struggle for freedom from slavery, for worker’s rights, for civil rights, for gay rights, and for women’s rights. It is the story of the fight against expansionism and imperialism, and for economic justice. It is a story that’s written in the sweat and blood of ordinary Americans, and one that every American should know.