December 14, 2009

The People Speak on the History Channel

Here's a TV special that premiered on the History Channel Sunday (12/13/09):

About The People SpeakUsing dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries and speeches of everyday Americans, the documentary feature film THE PEOPLE SPEAK gives voice to those who spoke up for social change throughout U.S. history, forging a nation from the bottom up with their insistence on equality and justice.

Narrated by acclaimed historian Howard Zinn and based on his best-selling books, A People's History of the United States and, with Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People's History, THE PEOPLE SPEAK illustrates the relevance of these passionate historical moments to our society today and reminds us never to take liberty for granted.

THE PEOPLE SPEAK is produced by Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Chris Moore, Anthony Arnove, and Howard Zinn, co-directed by Moore, Arnove and Zinn, and features and dramatic and musical performances by Brolin, Damon, Rosario Dawson, Bob Dylan, Michael Ealy, Lupe Fiasco, Morgan Freeman, Jasmine Guy, John Legend, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, Sandra Oh, Viggo Mortensen, Bruce Springsteen, Marisa Tomei, Kerry Washington, and many others.

I believe this video is of the stage show that was filmed for the TV special. I think it gives you the basic idea. You can see the actual trailer on the show's official website.


Stars bring to life words of the people

By Matthew GilbertI was anxious about seeing Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States’’ and “Voices of a People’s History’’ adapted for TV in the new History Channel documentary “The People Speak,’’ which premieres tomorrow night at 8. It seemed too possible that watching marquee movie and music stars on a stage reciting material written by history’s unelected spokesmen and dissidents might present viewers with an odd disconnect. Would the aura of fame and fortune surrounding the show’s dazzling cast--including Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Bruce Springsteen, Jasmine Guy, Bob Dylan, Sandra Oh, Lupe Fiasco, and Benjamin Bratt--undermine Zinn’s alternative perspective? If this material is meant to celebrate ordinary people questioning policies and practices and making a difference, would the messengers negate the message?

Turns out the documentary, whose readings were filmed on stages in Boston (at the Cutler Majestic Theatre) and Los Angeles, works beautifully. The stars bring a full sense of drama and import to the voices of our democracy without turning the production into a pile-on celebrity vehicle. While an alternate to the History Channel movie featuring unknown readers would undoubtedly have its own virtues, “The People Speak’’ has vitality and momentum thanks to the skills of the performers. These seasoned actors and singers are able to highlight both the particulars and the general significance of the material they’re given.
'The People Speak'

The dramatic readings on the History Channel show make the case that democracy is a political activity.

By Mary McNamara
Class division is a drumbeat throughout "The People Speak," which is a primer of liberal ideology with a decided bent toward socialism; no one's reading a few rousing passages of Ayn Rand's, for instance. The letters and journals and speeches selected cover the American timeline, from the abolitionists through AIDS activists, but the theme of personal and political enfranchisement, tolerance, peace and American humility is the consistent theme. Equal rights, protection of workers, protection of children, even rent control are celebrated while concepts such as patriotism--the last refuge of scoundrels, according to pacifist and anarchist Emma Goldman--and national security are portrayed as the whip and cattle prod used by the power elite. Even World War II is cast as a false model for American military domination.

The producers of "The People Speak," who include Brolin and Damon, clearly intend "The People Speak" as a wake-up call to Americans who feel that their duty as citizens begins and ends at the ballot box, but that call does not seem to include those of a more conservative nature.

Still, the reminder that no president, no Congress, no government ever solved a problem or righted an injustice until prodded into action by protest seems particularly resonant in the wake of President Obama's election, a feat many seemed to believe guaranteed instant, sweeping reformation.

"Power concedes nothing without a demand," said Frederick Douglass. "It never did and it never will."
Reactions to The People Speak

I heard about this show when Matt Damon plugged it on Jay Leno and Josh Brolin plugged it on The Tonight Show. Alas, I don't get the History Channel, so I couldn't watch it.

I couldn't even find a list of the texts performed online. All I know is that actress and activist Q'orianka Kilcher was one of the readers.

I did come across a few of interesting reactions. On the conservative side, someone complained that Damon, Brolin, and company were telling us what to think. Really? By reading historical documents verbatim? Is this another idiot who doesn't know the difference between firsthand evidence and secondhand opinions? Who thinks Iraq must've had hidden stockpiles of WMDs because everyone thought it did?

On the other hand, Brolin said the show had no slant because people were simply reading documents. That's disingenuous at best. The slant comes from choosing documents selectively, not reading them selectively.

But if the show has a liberal slant, so what? Our cultural has a conservative slant, as we learn every Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. From textbooks to bestsellers, we're inundated with paeans to the people who invaded colonized settled America.

The People Speak is a good corrective to America's foundational myths. You know, the ones perpetuated in every holiday, parade, monument, and pageant. How many people think of George Washington as the noble father of our country, and how many think of him as a commander who executed deserters? I'm guessing the ratio of the former to the latter is something like 100 or 1,000 to 1.

On the other end of the spectrum, a Native activist complained about the paucity of material about Indians, saying it took up only five of the 120 minutes. Really? Five minutes is roughly 4% of the total, while Indians have only 1% of the US population. Far from being slighted, I'd say Indians got their fair share of coverage--and then some.

For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.

Below:  "(1st row L-R) Allison Moorer, Matt Damon, Howard Zinn, Abbe Raven, StaceyAnn Chin, Viggo Mortensen, (2nd row L-R) Danny Glover, Chris Moore, Lupe Fiasco, Josh Brolin, Q'orianka Kilcher, Jasmine Guy, Harris Yulin, (3rd row L-R) Michael Ealy, Anthony Arnove, Darryl McDaniels, Nancy Dubuc, Rich Robinson, Christina Kirk, and Kathleen Chalfant. Backstage at Jazz at Lincoln Center, November 19, 2009, NYC Premiere of The People Speak."


Kat said...

Well, that depends...
It depends on how you determine the time: Strictly by numbers/percentage of population or according to whose voices are usually not heard enough, cutting down 'White time', since they already control most of the history books and media etc. I'm all for the latter.

dmarks said...

"according to pacifist and anarchist Emma Goldman"

It is always amusing to see her called an "anarchist", when in her activism she fought for a more powerful government having more control over people. Sometimes, the label "anarchist" has no meaning at all.

dmarks said...

"Who thinks Iraq must've had hidden stockpiles of WMDs because everyone thought it did?"

And this is because they were found. A number ranging from between 50 and 500 ( and Pentagon reports).