'People's History' Film Project Draws Stars, Drama Howard Zinn's book A People's History of the United States tells the stories of those whose voices weren't heard in traditional history books. Filming has begun for an adaptation called The People Speak, but the producers haven't found a home for the film, and not everyone is happy with Zinn's view of history.
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'People's History' Film Project Draws Stars, Drama

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'People's History' Film Project Draws Stars, Drama

'People's History' Film Project Draws Stars, Drama

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's latest joint venture might not have some of the dramatic suspense of today's Oscar nominations, but the story itself has plenty of tension. The movie, a documentary about Howard Zinn's book, "A People's History of the United States." Since its publication more than two decades ago, the book changed how history is taught. And it started more than its share of arguments. Mix in a little Hollywood star power and Oscar-winning clout, and it shouldn't be too surprising that the film version would have some drama of its own.

From Boston, WBUR's Andrea Shea has the story.

ANDREA SHEA: Progressive liberals embrace "A People's History" for its populous take on social and political descent when it was first published in 1980. But it 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."

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Actor): (As Sean Maguire): If you're gonna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." That book (bleep) knock you on your ass better than Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent." Do you think that's a good book?

SHEA: Damon himself is a fan of "A People's History." The Boston-area native grew up next door to Zinn and may have been trying to make movies based on the book for 10 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.

Mr. HOWARD ZINN (Author, "A People's History of the United States"): And HBO went so far as to hire scriptwriters that he had chosen. And John Sayles wrote the script, Howard Fast wrote the script, Paul Laverty, who works with Ken Loach, wrote a script. They turned them down. And since, we send them in other attempts, and finally this year, Chris Moore took matters in hand and said, I'm going to do it. And so he's doing it.

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

Mr. CHRIS MOORE (Executive producer, "The People Speak"): You know, it's hard to make people pay attention to history, period. It gets even harder when it's history with a point of view.

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 bias. 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.

Mr. 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 the people who are going to be part of this, they give us the opportunity to be able to make this, you know, something that people will go see.

SHEA: On this day in Boston, it's working. The Emerson Majestic's theater is filling up for the first in the series of stage readings being filmed in front of a live audience. Actor Danny Glover takes the stage to read "Ballad of Roosevelt," a poem by Langston Hughes.

Mr. DANNY GLOVER (Actor): (Reading) The rent was due and the lights were out. I said, tell me, mama, what's it all about? We're waiting on Roosevelt, son. Roosevelt, Roosevelt. Just waiting on Roosevelt. Sister got sick and the doctor wouldn't come because we couldn't pay him the proper sum. A-waiting on Roosevelt. Roosevelt. Roosevelt. Yes, I'm waiting on Roosevelt.

SHEA: But star power like Glovers could distract from the impact of the words, says Georgetown University history professor, Michael Kazin.

Professor MICHAEL KAZIN (History, Georgetown University): There can be this confusion, sometimes, in a mind of the viewer that the actor who is speaking these lines is much more real to them than the personal who actually wrote those lines.

SHEA: Kazin has criticized the book as bad history, an overly selective string of accusations against the powerful. But he applauds the use of actual words of people who witnessed or played a part in that history.

Mr. JOSH BROLIN (Actor): I'm reading Christopher Columbus. I'm reading Mark Twain.

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," says playing fictional roles doesn't carry the same weight as delivering real speeches by real historical figures.

Mr. JOSH BROLIN: The main thing with all of these is that people actually got up and said something, you know? In the worst situations, with Venzetti, he was going to the death chamber, basically, and they say, you have any last words? And to this day, they look back and it's very obvious that he 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 veer them from that point on even after his death. And they do.

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

Mr. BROLIN: I am suffering because I am a radical, and indeed I am a radical. I have suffered more for my family than I have for myself. And realize this, you can only kill me once. But if I could be reborn, I would live again to do what I have done already.

SHEA: Brolin, the other actors and much of the audience have believed wholeheartedly with Howard Zinn's prospective. Historian Michael Kazin wonders if in the end, "The People Speak" will be another comfort documentary that preaches to the choir.

Mr. KAZIN: Zinn certainly has higher aspirations then. He wants to change the country. If you want to change the country, you have to make film which is going to speak to people who are not converted already. And I don't think that Zinn's book does that very well. Whether the film does it real well or not is an open question.

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 30 years ago.

Mr. HOWARD ZINN (Author, "A People's History of the United States; Professor Emeritus, Boston University): Sure, because the film is going to be in your face. The film is going to 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 of history.

SHEA: For now, the producers and crew are hitting the road to catch up with celebs, including Matt Damon, who couldn't be in Boston for the film's inaugural shoot. 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 is always YouTube.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

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