“THE PEOPLE SPEAK” (2009): The true story of America

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Poster of the film.

Howard Zinn: “We didn’t want to hear the words of the White House. We wanted to hear the words of those picketing the White House. Agitators. The anti-war protesters. The socialists and anarchists. In other words, the people who gave us whatever liberty and democracy we have in this country. What’s common to all of them is the spirit of resistance to illegitimate authority. Democracy is in dissent. Democracy is in resistance. Democracy does not come from the top. It comes from the bottom”.

A People’s History of the United States, by New York historian Howard Zinn (1922-2010), first published in 1980, and since then many times reprinted (it has sold more than 2,5 millions of copies) is a revolutionary book in at least two senses. The explicit one of denouncing the injustices in the world and of trying to correct them, and in that of present things in a radically new fashion. It tells the US story not according to the abstract rhetoric of official version, with presidents’ and generals’ big names, mythic battles and foundation dates -the tale that posits dominating wasps as a unique, undeniable protagonist-, but based on social, popular movements that are pushed aside to the margins of consecrated stories: the antislavery and anti-segregation movements (civil rights), unionism and workers’ demands, women’s rights movement, Native Americans’ resistance. In A People’s History emerges a story completely different from the one systematically told in the mainstream media. Many muzzled people are able to speak and be heard. The prevailing idea that the elite have driven democracy in a progressive way is refuted by the evidence that grassroots movements are the ones that have forced the ruling classes into making considerable concessions. The abolition of slavery, the recognition of women’s and African-Americans’ rights, the eight-hour working day and other modern achievements were gained through enormous physical risks and efforts, not freely given by the ruling class.

The abolition of slavery, the recognition of women’s and African-Americans’ rights, the eight-hour working day and other modern achievements were gained through enormous physical risks and efforts, not freely given by the ruling class.

The revolution that was the publication of this book drew up a completely new history of America that millions of people have adopted in order to understand the character of their country, and that nobody has been able to deny with facts or arguments. Its deep impact gave rise to many public lectures and debates, and in the complementary book Voices from a People’s History of the United States, which includes the literal words from the people quoted in A People’s History (drawn from speeches, articles, books, songs…). The film The People Speak (2009) consists of a series of public readings by many famous actresses and actors of fragments extracted from Voices from a People’s History of the United States. Actresses and actors read out the statements of all sorts of activists -abolitionists, suffragists, spokespeople of American natives, pacifists, worker leaders, opponents of racism…- who were critical in US history, in the building of an ethical, human country, and that are often erased from the official version taught at high schools and other educational institutions.

Actresses and actors read out the statements of all sorts of activists: abolitionists, suffragists, spokespeople of American natives, pacifists, worker leaders, opponents of racism…

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Howard Zinn (front row, third from left) with actresses and actors who gave their voices to the fragments selected for The People Speak (2009).

The approach is simple and original. Gather actresses, actors, and singers in the Cutler Majestic Theater of Boston, Massachusetts, and in the Malibu Performing Arts Center, of Malibu (Los Angeles, California), ask them to read out and sing in front of the public and record the event. Howard Zinn himself -a year before dying- tells the main episodes of the alternative story of America, which are expressed by the recited fragments and songs. In being converted from printed texts into living word, the different messages become even more intense and pressing.

Fragments are by all sorts of people who engaged in social struggles throughout the centuries. After Matt Damon’s initial reading of a passage from the Declaration of Independence  (1776), as a seldom realized reference text on human rights, are read words of soldiers forced to fight in inhuman conditions in the War of Independence, farmers rebelled against Federal abusive taxes, African-American slaves‘ protests, abolitionist statements and denounces of segregation (John Brown read by David Strathairn; Frederick Douglass read by Morgan Freeman, Malcolm X…), assertions of women’s rights (Elizabeth C. Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth), calls to action and rebellion, socialist manifests (Eugene Debs), protests against military expansionism (chief Joseph of Nez Percé in a journey to Washington in 1879…), refutations of the totalitarian concept of patriotism (Emma Goldman), resistance to fight wars (Muhammad Ali, Daniel Ellsberg, the parents of American people killed by terrorism who oppose to the conquering retaliations of Bush Jr. Administration)… Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, and The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, are also read: reference manifests about the horrors of militarism an the extreme sufferings undertaken by the American poor.

Readings are accompanied by musical performances in which emblematic songs of American folk are played: “Masters of War” (1963) by Bob Dylan, interpreted by Eddie Vedder, “This Land Is Your Land” (1940) by Woody Guthrie, sung by Bruce Springsteen, “Do Re Mi” (1937) also by Guthrie, adapted by Bob Dylan, “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?” (1931) by Yib Harburg, sung by Alison Moorer, “Dear Mr. President” (2006) by P!nk: P!nk, “Ohio” (1974) by Neil Young, played by Rich & Chris Robinson, and “People Have the Power” (1988) by Patti Smith. These are some of the best known songs of the countercultural movements which constitute the best contribution America has made to the world. (See many of these songs in The People Speak 2.)

The voyage through this speeches, letters, books, and songs allows for a new understanding of America’s history and character. It surfaces that which the powerful would like to be forgotten and erased: the power of social movements, the integrity of some people who faced authoritarianism and its threats. The spectator sees how, from the conquest of Atlantic coast by the English and of the savage genocide of American natives by the US army, the history of this country has been that of an elite’s wish to take all the land, resources, and riches, and of the moral resistance of a series of upright people representing the oppressed, abused, exploited majority. Lying bare this history is the excellent contribution of both Zinn’s books and the film The People Speak.

The history of this country has been that of an elite’s wish to take all the land, resources, and riches, and of the moral resistance of a series of upright people representing the oppressed, abused, exploited majority.

Some of the outstanding people whose words are read by actresses and actors:

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Chief Joseph (Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt) (1840-1904), chief of the Nez Percé, thrown out from their ancestral lands in Oregon by the US Govern.

 

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Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), abolitionist and social reformer.

 

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John Brown (1800-1859), abolitionist.
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Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), activist for the voting right and civil rights.
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Elizabeth C. Stanton (1815-1902), abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights.
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Muhammad Ali (Casius Clay Jr.) (1942-2016) boxer and advocate for African-American rights.
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Malcolm X (1925-1965), Muslim minister and civil rights activist.
emma_goldman
Emma Goldman (1869-1940), Lithuanian emigrated to the US at 16, anarchist and feminist. Deported to Russia in 1919.
eugene_v-_debs
Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), socialist, one of the main drivers of workers movement in America.
yuri_kochiyama
Yuti Kochiyama (1921-2014), spokeswoman of anti-war movement and the campaign for reparations for the internment of American-Japanese families in concentration camps.
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Daniel Ellsberg (1931), member of the Pentagon since 1964, opponent of Vietnam war. He revealed official secrets (Pentagon Papers).
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Phyllis and Orlando Rodríguez, parents of a young man killed in the World Trade Center terrorist attack in 2001. Opposed to the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.
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Cindy Sheehan (1957), anti-war activist, the mother of a soldier dead in the invasion of Iraq.

The sum of these moral witnesses shows that the official history is full of lies. The birth and development of the US wasn’t the expression of a “Manifest Destiny” -as it is often said-, but to the theft of North America lands from their inhabitants through a savage genocide; the civil war between North and South wasn’t due to the North’s wish to abolish African-American slavery, but to a rivalry between two economic models fighting for hegemony; the end of segregation can’t be attributed to humanitarian feelings, but to a cession in the face of a organized, mass pressure; the political economy called New Deal wasn’t the result of the elite’s desire to alleviate the people’s hardships after the Great Depression of 1929, but was a strategic way of containing social protests already uncontrollable; the retaliations in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of the still not well understood attack in NY World Trade Center in 2001 were driven by big corporations eager for oil, gas and geo-strategic positions… To sum up, the official history of America is -in the words of Shakespearean Macbeth- “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Against this distorted version rise the ethical voices collected by Zinn in his books, and read out in  The People Speak.

In view of the fact that the power in America is being disputed by a representative of traditional right (Clinton) and the instigator of the most aggressive far right (Trump), one could think that the struggle for civil rights has failed, that workers have lost their class conscience, that high classes want to protect their privileges at the expense of lower classes, that the whole approach of social cohesion and solidarity has been dismantled and that nobody cares for climate change. Indeed, workers lose their rights, there’s an increase of unjustified killings of unarmed black people by white policemen. Some de-ideologised white workers express their frustration and resentment supporting the agitator of hate who appeals to their lowest passions. The social, political and moral regression seems undeniable in many aspects. The first economic and military power in the world is recovering its most primitive instincts.

Howard Zinn presented himself as an optimist. Not in the sense that he wasn’t aware of the atrocities and the brutality of his time -an ethic, committed historian like him couldn’t be oblivious of them-, but as a self-imposed attitude: his duty was to fight to improve the living conditions of his countryfolk and contemporaries. Zinn argued also that, in spite of all the lack of solidarity, the sackings, and the militarism he saw, he didn’t want to forget all the amazing achievements social movements had gained in his country, like the abolition of slavery and the recognition of women’s political and social rights. He argued that if those rights had been secured in spite of the many physical threats by the powerful, it was necessary to keep alive the struggle against present injustices, without yielding to defeatism. Matt Damon and the rest of actors and actresses who lent their voices to the conscience words joined in this ethical resistance to brutality, and gave life to this essential alternative story, much truer and accurate than the official one. Zinn put together it from the words of some of the great creators of America.

DETAILS

Directors: Howard Zinn, Chris Moore, Anthony Arnove
Country: United States
Original Language: English
Running time: 113 minutes
Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qpm6aw5OWw
Website: http://howardzinn.org/related-projects/the-people-speak/

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