Review of “The People Speak”

By Robert Jensen

Published in YES Magazine · August, 2010

YES! Film Picks
The People Speak
Directed by Anthony Arnove and Chris Moore, 2009, 150 min.

History typically is taught through the “great man” approach—focusing on presidents, generals, and tycoons—wrapped in an ideology that asserts the nobility of all things American. Rarely do we hear from ordinary people who resisted those great (white) men.

No one has done more to challenge the standard account of U.S. history than the late Howard Zinn, whose book, A People’s History of the United States, is a perennial best-seller. The new documentary film, The People Speak, based on the original documents collected in the companion volume Voices of a People’s History of the United States, brings Zinn’s insights to the screen at a time they are needed more than ever.

Zinn and Anthony Arnove, ¬co-editor of the Voices volume, assembled a first-rate cast with the help of Matt Damon, Zinn’s longtime friend. The actors’ readings of those original documents onstage at Boston’s Majestic Theatre bring to life the people and ideas that have animated struggles for social, political, and economic justice.

We recognize some of these historical voices. Kerry Washington provides a sassy reading of “Ain’t I a Woman,” capturing the anger, contempt, and sadness of Sojourner Truth’s challenge to racism and sexism.

Others are anonymous, such as the member of the Industrial Workers of the World, whose analysis of World War I, read by Viggo Mortensen, still rings true: “This war is a businessman’s war, and we don’t see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs which we now enjoy.”

The timing of this project—The People Speak was originally broadcast on the History Channel in December 2009—took a bit of the edge off the sad news of Zinn’s death a month later. It’s wonderful to watch him wrap up the performance by pointing to the evidence for hope in “small acts multiplied by the millions” that make social movements and create change.