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People Speak, The (DVD Review)

18 Feb, 2010 By: Billy Gil

Street 2/23/10
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Featuring Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Viggo Mortensen, Marisa Tomei, Don Cheadle, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan.

The People Speak offers a moving take on the late Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, along with its primary-source companion book, Voices of a People’s History of the United States.

The film filters Zinn’s alternate take on history, full of protesters and dissenters, through the mouths of noted actors and musicians. Most of the performances are terrific, especially from the actors, several of whom get to prove their dramatic chops and show dedication to more than just their acting careers (I’m guessing they didn’t get paid much, if anything).

Particularly terrific are David Strathairn’s (Good Night, and Good Luck.) impassioned reading of abolitionist John Brown, rapper Lupe Fiasco intoning an antiwar leaflet like a preacher and Christina Kirk’s fiery take on Susan B. Anthony’s rebuttal against a court that fined her for voting.

Zinn narrates his own words over footage of Vietnam War protests, photos of anti-slavery leaders and renderings of the Native-American massacre. He shows us the rocky road to ending slavery, full of misconceptions, and lends a voice to those who are often unseen in mainstream historical texts, such as pacifist and anarchist Emma Goldman (as read by Sandra Oh), whose questioning of the use of patriotism to rally support for war rings just as vital today.

The musical performances are so-so, but Bob Dylan singing Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” about the plight of Oakies, is not to be missed.

Perhaps the most effective speaker in the film is the recently deceased Zinn himself, ending the film with the plea, “if we live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that’s bad around us, that in itself is a marvelous victory.”

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