By Matthew Toplikar
Jan 26, 2014
Four years ago today, historian, professor, activist, author, and playwright, Howard Zinn passed away at the age of 87. For those of us who are familiar with his work, he has been a great source of inspiration. Zinn's book, A People's History of the United States, is probably what he is most known for. At the time of its publishing in 1980 it put forth a radical idea for how to view history. Instead of focusing on the viewpoint of kings, presidents, business owners, and otherwise famous historical figures, A People's History, tells the stories and struggles of the poor, the working class, immigrants, slaves, Native Americans, suffragists, civil rights activists, and many of the other little-known and everyday shapers of American history– what has lately been referred to as "the 99%". This was important not just because it gave a critical view of "the 1%", but because it showed the courage, character, hard work, and long, step-by-step victories of a different kind of American hero– the underdog.
Possibly Zinn's central lesson when talking about history was that understanding what has happened to people in the past is essential to understanding what is going on in our lives today. The same arguments that have been used to abuse people's rights, to oppress them economically, and to convince them to fight and pay for wars have been used again and again throughout history– and knowing this history will keep you from being taken in by some of the same deceptions and manipulations that will be used throughout your own lifetime.
Because of our great respect for Howard Zinn, we at Films For Action love sharing his vision with as many people as we can. Over the years, we have cataloged a range of the online-available films, video clips, speeches, and interviews with and about this great American populist. The following are some of our favorites.
You Can't Be Neutral On a Moving Train – This 2004 feature documentary (narrated by Matt Damon) is a biography of Zinn's life based on his memoir of the same name. Starting with his early life as a bombardier during World War II, and highlighting his emergence as a teacher, civil rights, and anti-war activist, the documentary puts forth one of Zinn's most important pieces of wisdom: To be passive, apathetic, or otherwise neutral in the face of oppressions and atrocities is to be a complicit collaborator to them.
Empire or Humanity: What the Classroom Didn't Teach Me About About the American Empire – This short film (narrated by Viggo Mortenson) is an illustrated representation of one of Zinn's personal essays. It highlights his initial formal education of America's "Manifest Destiny" and his later, deeper understanding of it's similarities to history's other empires and their desire for wealth and power.
Howard Zinn's Speech on Civil Disobedience – Probably Zinn's most powerful and popular speech was on civil disobedience– one of his favorite topics. When giving the speech in 1970, he was actually defying an order to appear in court due to a previous arrest from an anti-war protest. Over the years, many actors have read the speech in theatrical settings and public gatherings. Our favorite versions are read by the comedic actor Wallace Shawn, and Academy Award winner Matt Damon.
The Three Holy Wars – This filmed lecture given by Howard Zinn at The Progressive's 100th Anniversary Conference asks critical questions about the three wars in American history which historians commonly put on a pedestal beyond moral, ethical, or logical judgement. Because of this lack of critical analysis, Zinn argues that the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II are commonly used to historically justify the wars of today.
Voices from a People's History of the United States – One of Zinn's more interesting projects was to assemble the most inspiring letters, speeches, and essays from the unlikely heroes that populate his book "A People's History of the United States". The text from these writings was moving enough to pique the curiosity of the talented actors, activists, and authors who perform them in this public reading and tribute to him.
A Conversation: Howard Zinn & Woody Harrelson – From Bob Dylan and Morgan Freeman to Marisa Tomei and Rosario Dawson, many well known celebrities have shown their interest and admiration of Howard Zinn's work through the numerous performance readings of excerpts from his books. One of his more interesting and humorous interactions with Hollywood was during a filmed, hour-long conversation he had with a very nervous and humbled Woody Harrelson in 2003 for the Manhattan Neighborhood Network.