History rocks

Zinn's people's history comes to life, and song
By JIM SULLIVAN  |  January 15, 2008
Howard Zinn

At the press conference a week ago Wednesday for “The People Speak,” a dramatic reading from parts of two Howard Zinn books at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, Viggo Mortensen bristled slightly. I had asked whether he had any trepidation about participating in the reading of a “radical” version of American history. “Not radical,” he replied. “I’d say ‘the truth.’ ”

Zinn, BU professor emeritus, calls it “history that’s different from the history books people had in school. The point of view was of people who’d gotten into trouble and had to fight back, dissidents and troublemakers of all kinds — the people who have given us the freedom of democracy we have.” He’s referring to A People’s History of the United States, which sold its millionth copy five years ago, and its offshoot Voices of “A People’s History of the United States.” The latter brings together letters, poems, songs, and the like from both the famous (MLK, Thoreau, Twain, Muhammad Ali) and the obscure (union organizers, workers, soldiers).

At the Majestic, over the course of two afternoons and evenings, producer Chris Moore filmed Mortensen, David Strathairn, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Josh Brolin, and many more taking on those roles. Brolin read a particularly wrenching passage from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. Mortensen sang Dylan’s “Masters of War,” a cappella, and John Legend performed Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

The readings and music will be integrated into a mini-series that they intend to run before the election. But Moore admits that potential deals with Fox and HBO have fallen through, so he’s not sure exactly where and when it will show up. There are plans to return to Boston in April to shoot more musical segments, and smaller readings will take place around the country later. The project was hatched 10 years ago by Zinn pals Matt Damon and Ben Affleck with Moore (of American Pie fame). They met when Moore co-produced Good Will Hunting.

Other highlights? Numerous. Reg E. Cathey as abolitionist Frederick Douglass, damning the Fourth of July as “yours not mine.” Tomei as anti-Iraq-war activist Cindy Sheehan letting loose at Bush. And Glover, quietly closing with “If there’s no struggle, there’s no progress.”

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