Dramatic Voices of Dissent: Celebrities Film Zinn's 'The People Speak'
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Why would Josh Brolin -- with all the current Oscar buzz for his work in No Country for Old Men -- schlep to Boston to film an independent television project named The People Speak for union-scale wages? He explains with passion, "I have given myself over to supporting [this project] in any way that I can in the spirit of reaching those who are in need of an inspiration ... to speak up for themselves." It is this continuum among the historical dissident writings, the activist performers and an audience hungry to unearth the history of their own class, gender and race, that promises to produce an exceptional television series.
The four-hour series is based on the words of the original primary sources for Howard Zinn's unique perennial A Peoples History of the United States , now approaching sales of 2 million copies. These testimonies have been collected by Zinn and his frequent collaborator Anthony Arnove in a new volume called Voices of a Peoples History of the United States . Chris Moore, Zinn and Arnove are executive producing and directing.
Recently they shot the first four sessions of readings and performances in Boston's Cutler Majestic Theatre, organizing them around four themes: class, women, race and war. Boston is Zinn's home turf, so every seat was swiftly filled with people who know his work.
Zinn's introductions and each session's readings offered tantalizing insights into the oft-hidden radical sides of historical figures. Helen Keller, generally represented in soft-focus homilies for overcoming her disabilities, was actually a fiery socialist and suffragist who once, Zinn recalled, picketed outside a theater production about herself. In the "women" session, Christina Kirk read with obvious contemporary resonance from Keller's famous 1916 speech Strike Against War . Here is one excerpt:
We are not preparing to defend our country. Even if we were as helpless as Congressman Gardner says we are, we have no enemies foolhardy enough to attempt to invade the United States. ... [Congress] is planning to protect the capital of American speculators and investors. ... Incidentally this preparation will benefit the manufacturers of munitions and war machines.
Mark Twain's novels are taught in schools, but his anti-imperialist essays were only collected in 1992. "I am opposed," he wrote in 1900, "to have the eagle put its talons on any other land." He exposed the slaughter of Philippine natives during the American invasion in 1899. His Comments on the Moro Massacre , read by Brolin during the "war" session, recall how 600 Filipino children, women and men were trapped in a crater, surrounded on all sides and murdered by "the Christian soldiers of the United States" shooting down into it.
For the many celebrities involved, this is a too-rare chance to work on something that reflects their political values. In shooting this production, Howard Zinn explains, the means are as rewarding as the ends:
Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Kerry Washington and Viggo Mortensen all flew the redeye just to spend a day or two with us ... The affection, the teamwork and the camaraderie -- it becomes less a cast than a social movement, like people on a picket line together. That's the spirit we felt backstage and throughout the process.
The four sessions garnered a momentum that culminated in a prolonged, celebratory standing ovation at the end of the last shoot, audience and cast alike savoring the rare experience of being in a theater full of like-minded progressives.
Some of the readings are terrifying. Following a disturbing excerpt from Christopher Columbus' diary at the opening of the "war" session, Viggo Mortensen read a chilling piece from Bartolome de las Casas' Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies , written in 1542. De las Casas explains how 49 years after the arrival of the Spanish "ravening wild beasts" to Hispaniola, a place that "is a beehive of people," the estimated population of 3 million was reduced to "barely 200 persons."
Some readings are inspirational, not the least Danny Glover's powerful performance of Langston Hughes' "Ballad of Roosevelt" and Mortensen's heart-stopping a capella version of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War." With his hip-hop body language, the Run-D.M.C. founder Darryl McDaniels performed the speech Glover made during the 2003 world protest against the invasion of Iraq, while Glover watched from backstage. When John Legend sang Marvin Gaye's anti-war song, "What's Goin On," the boomers in the crowd visibly swooned.
"Since we published Voices in 2004," Arnove says, "Howard and I have been organizing readings with actors, poets, activists and sometimes even the people themselves or a relation, like the mother of Rachel Corrie." Last month in one such performance, a dramatized version called Rebel Voices at the Culture Project, New York's political theater, the poet and writer Staceyann Chin started her love affair with the project. "I believe in the texts. ... As a black, immigrant lesbian woman, I appreciate the retelling of historical events from the point of view of people who aren't necessarily the voice of power."
With backing from Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid, and the independent film production company ArtFire, the three collaborators hope to complete the project before selling it. While they are in talks with "serious television networks," Arnove explains, "we want to do it on our own terms." There's already a lot of international interest -- they're putting together a trailer for the Berlin Film Festival -- but their focus is on the domestic market.
Zinn sighs over the past attempts to bring his bestseller to the screen. There was the Fox vice president who had read Zinn's book in college and worked with him until it was nixed by Fox two years later. "I don't know what went on behind the scenes -- perhaps they finally read it," Zinn smiled.
Later he spent a day in L.A. with Moore, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck -- "Ben did most of the talking" -- visiting with three TV networks (HBO, TNT and ABC), all of which wanted the rights to a dramatic series based on the book. "We picked HBO," recalls Zinn, who then hired three top writers: John Sayles, Howard Fast and Paul Laverty (who works with Ken Loach). HBO rejected the scripts and when Zinn made the unhappy call to John Sayles, the writer told him, "I know why they turned it down. It's not sexy enough."
Zinn prefers the present format, working with the texts themselves and maintaining creative control. "We wouldn't sell it to anyone who is going to change it, cut it, censor it. We'll sell it to whoever has no qualms about presenting this bold, in-your-face view of American history. ... I feel fairly confident that some enterprising station that isn't too burdened by corporate sponsorship will be interested in buying it."
There are many more tapings to be done, not the least, musical performances. Eddie Vedder, front man of Pearl Jam, and both Steve Earle and Allison Moorer are onboard -- they just couldn't make it to Boston. The producers are talking to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen -- the latter is apparently a Howard Zinn admirer -- but neither is yet nailed down. If they have the funds, they'll go shoot where busy stars are located. They may have to do that with Matt Damon, who grew up next door to the Zinns, but who couldn't make these shoots. Ultimately, Arnove told me, "We hope to come back to the Cutler Majestic Theatre with a group of musicians to do an evening of mostly musical interpretations of powerful voices of dissent from U.S. history."
Their plans are ambitious: Besides the four-hour television series, they want to produce an expanded DVD with multiple educational uses, build a parallel life on the Web, with downloadable modules, and develop a theatrical incarnation. While there is pressure from some directions to have the series out before the November elections, for Arnove the timing is coincidental. "This isn't an intervention. We want to inspire the kinds of social movements that can put pressure on whoever is in office in 2008."
The process is ongoing. Brolin feels he's made the leap from learning about American history to trying to change it. "The collective reaction of the audience at the theatre. ... gave me the same empowering rush that I felt when I first read the book." He hopes that The People Speak will "give children and adults alike the spoken proof that every voice matters, whether it be realized at that very moment or 500 years from now."
To prevent any viewer at the Boston sessions from missing the ultimate activist point of The People Speak , Frederick Douglass, via Danny Glover, is given the last word from his 1857 speech West India Emancipation : "If there is no struggle there is no progress. ... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
Sue Katz has published journalism on the three continents where she has lived; her topics range from Middle East peace movements to the impact of aging on sexuality. Visit her blog at www.suekatz.com.