By Tom Shales
Saturday, December 12, 2009
"The People Speak," premiering on the History Channel on Sunday night, is based on a book called "A People's History of the United States," which might as reasonably have been titled "A Left-Wing Professor's History of the United States" -- not that there's anything wrong with that.
Author and scholar Howard Zinn hosts and narrates the two-hour film, a kind of historical vaudeville revue in which actors taped at three far-flung theaters recite Great Words collated by Zinn and attributed to a wide variety of grass-roots figures. All those chosen fit snugly into Zinn's theory that "democracy does not come from the top; it comes from the bottom."
Zinn, a World War II bombardier and longtime social activist, arrives onstage blowing his own horn. His students asked for "a radical view, a critical view" of American history, he says, and finding no published works to be sufficient, he decided to write one himself. He steps aside for a brief clip from the movie "Good Will Hunting" in which Matt Damon (executive producer of "Speak") tells Robin Williams to read Zinn's book and be knocked on his fanny.
His version, says Zinn, is "different from the history we all learned in school," but is it? I am a product of public education in the great American Midwest, and we certainly learned in history classes about John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry; the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass; early feminist crusaders Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth; socialist Eugene V. Debs, a Zinn hero; and John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," to name a few sources of Zinn's quotations.
In tandem with his elevation of everymen, and women, to the status of savants and prophets, Zinn enjoys debunking such previously revered figures as Christopher Columbus (okay, not revered, but at least respected?); Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt; even Abraham Lincoln; and, for bad measure, the Constitution of the United States, which Zinn finds highly inferior to the Declaration of Independence.
We must understand the "connections" among racism, militarism and economic injustice, Zinn says, providing what he considers plentiful examples of all three. In addition to the nearly incessant talking (by such notable actors as Morgan Freeman, Sandra Oh, Benjamin Bratt and David Straithairn), there is singing by Bob Dylan, the estimable John Legend and Bruce Springsteen, who desecrates Woody Guthrie's American anthem "This Land Is Your Land."
What Springsteen does to that song shouldn't be done to a goose at Christmastime.
Though there are moments of fiery conviction in the actors' readings, the overall presentation is heavy-handed and agitproppy, a shopping list of grievances through the years and a showcase for Zinn to point a metaphorical finger and silently shout, "J'accuse." It would be more instructive to hear him defending his accusations to a panel of skeptics, but he perhaps prefers deferential accord to angry dissent when it's his own work on the block.
The People Speak
(two hours) airs Sunday on History at 8.