Considering the fact that Texas has just voted to drop Thomas Jefferson from school textbooks, this DVD based on the work of Howard Zinn's alternate, acclaimed and radical historical retelling of A People's History of the United States and its companion book of primary sources Voices of a People's History of the United States couldn't be timelier.
Although it's described by DVD performer Matt Damon as a book that “will knock you on your ass” in Good Will Hunting, originally the Spellman College professor wrote the 1980 book out of sheer necessity when his student's wish for such a tome coincided with his search for a more complete, personal and philosophical approach to history.
When actors began performing sections of his work in theatres across the country years ago, putting it all together into a single performance seemed like a natural idea. And that's what has happened in this extraordinarily powerful, vibrant, and enlightening truncation of the text as actors, musicians and filmmakers gather primarily in two different theatres to give historical figures a more urgent voice in a series of monologues and in some cases recreations of arguments transcribed from documents of yesteryear. In doing so, they remind us of the vital role that people played in overcoming obstacles, fighting in wars, and trying their hardest to live their lives as equal citizens in these United States.
With Zinn himself serving as the narrator and host, we take a tour of America that runs not chronologically like most texts but – after establishing the earliest roots of our independence – by way of issues from racism to worker's rights to war in its illumination of the evolution of each.
Reminding audience members not to get the far more radical Declaration of Independence confused with the more conservative Constitution, (which does not guarantee the right to happiness), we're informed that greed, classism, war profiteering and varying opinions over national security were there from the beginning as “happiness” was replaced with property and different rights meant different things to different people.
The work boasts actors like Josh Brolin, Viggo Mortensen, Marisa Tomei, Sandra Oh, Rosario Dawson, Jasmine Guy, Kerry Washington, David Straithairn, Sean Penn, Don Cheadle and Benjamin Bratt performing first person speeches. Additionally mixing up the speeches with songs, musicians including John Legend, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, and Bob Dylan play famous tunes that personified the attitudes of our shared land. And throughout, Zinn bridges chronological gaps and sets the stage for what's to come as the filmmakers augment the powerful auditory experience with newsreel footage and vintage photographs to help make much more potent of an impact on even the most passive viewer.
While it's ideal for schools, being that we're in the midst of such historical censorship as to delete a president from our children's education, The People Speak is perhaps even more important for parents, grandparents or adult guardians to pick up.
No doubt they'll want to watch not only for themselves first (which is advised so that you can have a good frame of reference for events to do more research on) but also for children who may gain a new and optimistic sense of just what our American sisters and brothers and those who came before us went through in the presentation, extra features and Zinn's books.
For, the ultimate reminder and recurring fact that runs throughout the piece is in the revelation that despite the fact that we're the only nation that's been at war since 1940 (and never one on our soil), the only way we've been able to bring about governmental change is through active citizenry and knowledge whether it's in the form of strikes, letters, public outcry or protests.
Therefore, it's the duty of a member of these United States to speak up for those who cannot to ensure that history is never censored, that we learn from our mistakes, and that we try to make the experience for every subsequent generation better than the one before it.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.