Filming "A People's History"

The controversial book, "A People's History of the United States," is filled with speeches, letters, and last words by famous, and unsung, activists and revolutionaries.

Now a long-delayed film project based on the tome, by author, historian, and Boston University Professor Howard Zinn, is getting off the ground, fueled by Hollywood star power.

WBUR's Andrea Shea has more on the turbulent history of the book's film adaptation.

ANDREA SHEA: Progressive liberals embraced 'A People's History' for its populist take on social and political dissent when it was first published in 1980. But Howard's Zinn's book also drew criticism for being anti-establishment and preachy. 'A People's History' still sells, almost two million copies so far, and it's a cult favorite. Actor Matt Damon's working-class character sings its praises in the 1997 movie 'Good Will Hunting.'

FILM CLIP: 'You want to read a real history book read Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States,' that book will F*&#-in knock you on your ass. Better than Chompsky's 'Manufacturing Consent?' do you think that's a good book?'

ANDREA SHEA: Damon himself is a fan of 'A People's History.' The Cambridge-native grew up next door to Zinn, and they've been trying to make movies based on the book for ten years. Howard Zinn says he, Damon, Ben Affleck and 'Good Will Hunting' producer Chris Moore struck a mini-series deal first with Fox Television, that fell through, then with HBO.

HOWARD ZINN: And HBO went so far as to hire script writers that we had chosen, and John Sayles wrote a script and Howard Fast wrote a script. They turned 'em down. Since then there have been other attempts and finally this year Chris Moore took matters in hand and said I'm gonna do it. And so he's doing it.

ANDREA SHEA: He's doing it as an indie documentary or mini-series called 'The People Speak.'

CHRIS MOORE: You know it's hard to get people to pay attention to history period. It gets even harder when it's history with a point of view.

ANDREA SHEA: So Executive Producer Chris Moore says they'll add archival footage and historical context to the film to counter criticism that it's overly simplistic or biased. Fast-paced editing and contemporary music will help sell 'The People Speak' to audiences, he says, and so will having hot Hollywood actors read excerpts from Zinn's book.

CHRIS MOORE: Fame matters today, whether it should or not is an argument for another day but today fame matters. And Viggo Mortensen and Josh Brolin and David Straithairn and Marisa Tomei and Kerry Washington and John Legend and Matt Damon and all people are going to be a part of this, they give us the opportunity to be able to make this something that people will go see.

ANDREA SHEA: On this day in Boston it's working. The Emerson Majestic Theater is filling up for the first in a series of staged readings being taped in front of a live audience.

SOUND CHECK: technician counts - One, two, three, four, five

ANDREA SHEA: Actor Danny Glover takes the stage to read 'Ballad of Roosevelt,' a poem by Langston Hughes.

READING: 'The rent was due and the lights was out, I said tell me mamma, what's it all about? We're waitin' on Roosevelt, son, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Waitin' on Roosevelt.'

ANDREA SHEA: But star power, like Glover's, could distract from the impact of the words, says Georgetown University History Professor Michael Kazin.

MICHAEL KAZIN: There can be some confusion sometimes in the mind of the viewer that the actor who is speaking these lines is much more real to them than the person who actually wrote those lines.

ANDREA SHEA: Kazin has criticized the book for its portrayal of history as black and white, the actions of 'very good' and 'very bad' people. But he applauds the use of the actual words of people who witnessed or played a part in that history.

JOSH BROLIN: I'm reading Christopher Columbus I'm reading Mark Twain.

ANDREA SHEA: Actor Josh Brolin is also reading anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti's statement from his controversial murder trial in 1927, a trial that ended in his execution. Brolin who stars in the film, 'No Country for Old Men,' and says playing fictional roles doesn't carry the same weight as delivering real speeches by real historical figures.

JOSH BROLIN: The main thing with all of this is that people actually got up and said something, you know, in the worst situations, with Vanzetti he was going to the death chamber basically and they said you have any last words and to this day they look back and it's very obvious that was innocent but what he said was amazing. You know he didn't sit there and cry for help he made sure that his words had weight to them and that people would hear them from that point on even after his death. And they do.

ANDREA SHEA: On stage, wearing jeans and a button-down, Brolin reads Vanzetti's words from a script propped on a music stand with gray-scale, life-sized silhouettes in the background.

READING: 'I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to be right that you can only kill me once but if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.'

ANDREA SHEA: Brolin, the other actors, and much of the audience agree whole-heartedly with Howard Zinn's perspective. Historian Michael Kazin wonders if, in the end, 'The People Speak' will be another 'comfort documentary' that preaches to the choir.

MICHAEL KAZIN: Zinn certainly has higher aspirations than that. If you want to change the country you have to make a film which is going to speak to people who are not converted already, and I don't think Zinn's book does that very well. Whether the film does that really well or not is an open question.

ANDREA SHEA: At 85 Howard Zinn, a professor Emeritus at Boston University, says he's ready for the same sort of roasting his book received almost thirty years ago.

HOWARD ZINN: Sure. (laughs) because the film is going to be in your face (laughs again). The film is gonna be unabashed in what it says about war about our class system about the treatment of women about the treatment of black people and native Americans in this country, some people will be outraged by the point of view. They'll say this is not objective, this is biased. Well, of course, it's not objective, it's biased, like all history.

ANDREA SHEA: For now the producers and crew are hitting the road to catch up with celebs who couldn't be in Boston for the film's inaugural shoot, including Matt Damon. The goal is to finish 'The People Speak' before the Presidential election. And, if TV networks, cable channels and film distributors turn it down, they say, there's always Youtube.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

To see photos from the film shoot, and a video of actor Danny Glover reading Langston Hughes, visit our website:

This program aired on January 15, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Andrea Shea

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live