LOS ANGELES—In preparation for my interview with the acclaimed author Howard Zinn on his new documentary The People Speak, I wander into the neighborhood bookstore, Angel City, scouting for a copy of A People's History of the United States, the basis for the new film. I am told by the owner Rocco that the book flies off the shelf as soon as he gets a copy.
Later in our phone conversation, Zinn mentions that as most books peak in popularity and decline in sales, his book has remained a vital historical resource for three decades. It is even required reading in some schools. Nonetheless, Zinn knows there are still many people to reach, those who might shy away, like himself, he says joking (I think), of reading a 700 + page book.
A playwright, historian, activist, and professor emeritus at Boston University, Zinn wants history to be experiential, real, and relevant—and he believes art is a way to make history come alive.
“It always seemed to me that there was a special power that artists had when they commented, either in their own work or outside their work, on what was going on in the world. There was a kind of force that they brought into the discussion that mere prose could not match,” says Zinn in his book Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics.
With a documentary coming out soon on the History Channel, I was interested in this project which seems to merge and bridge Zinn’s life work, which has spanned decades.
Zinn tells me that long before this project, he had “a powerful involvement with the use of art to enhance and dramatize real events in history.”
As a teenager, he explains, he was moved by the passion of the performers to convey the sentiment or urgency of the political or social situation.
Having written three plays (Daughter of Venus, Emma, and Marx in Soho) he tells me proudly that his family have all been involved with theater—a passion they all share.
The intersection between art and political struggle are of particular interest to the tall and charming icon, who during World War II, was a second Lieutenant and bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Corps where he flew combat missions in Europe aboard a B-17. This was pivotal in shaping his vocal opposition to war.
Zinn continues to remind me that in his classes at Boston University, which I had the benefit of participating in as an undergrad, he used fictional books and film to bring the subjects of history to life. Grapes of Wrath, he says provides an example for teaching about The Depression.
“Memoir and poetry and novels are a more effective way of educating than prosaic presentation of facts and ideas,” says Zinn.
The People Speak, produced by Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Chris Moore, Anthony Arnove, and Zinn reflects the essence of the original book which offers the perspective of women, blacks, Native Americans, immigrants, and laborers in U.S. history.
“People in the entertainment world have a possibility of reaching larger numbers of people than we do,” Zinn remarked in Original Zinn, “if they miss an opportunity to reach huge numbers of people then they are depriving all of us of the very special opportunity.”
Embracing this opportunity is an exceptional group of talent from the world of acting and music including Viggo Mortensen, Sandra Oh, Sean Penn, Rosario Dawson, Don Cheadle, John Legend, and Eddie Vedder. These performers literally give voice to this often silenced segment that spoke up for social change throughout U.S. history, using dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries, and speeches of everyday Americans.
The People Speak will air on The History Channel and will be touring colleges. For more information, visit www.peopleshistory.us