August 5, 2009
In the movie “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon’s character sees a book on a shelf. It is “A People’s History of the United States” by radical historian Howard Zinn.
“This,” Damon tells his shrink, “will knock you on your ass.”
That line turned out to be one part product placement, one part prophecy.
Damon grew up next to Zinn, who taught at Boston University, and the young actor-to-be read “People’s History” when it was published in 1980.
“It had a huge impact on my life,” said Damon, who co-wrote the “Good Will” screenplay with Ben Affleck.
Zinn’s book was American history from the bottom up, telling our story not from the POV of the country’s great men, but the ordinary men and women who led popular movements to organize labor, fight for equal rights, end slavery and the Vietnam War and other causes.
Damon [pictured, left, in the photo at the top of this page, with producer Chris Moore] had no intention of limiting his enthusiasm for Zinn’s book to a shout-out from Will Hunting. As soon as he and Affleck exploded on the Hollywood scene, the two men, along with producer Chris Moore, began a crusade to get “People’s History” adapted for the screen.
“From the moment that we had any kind of influence in this town,” Damon said, “we were trying to get this project off the ground.”
And now it’s off the ground. But before we get to that news — part of the fall previews for TV critics in Pasadena — let’s have a short history lesson.
In 1999 Fox announced it was developing a 10-part miniseries based on Zinn’s book. The news made many folks who cover the television industry do a Scooby-Doo double take.
Fox? Really? The conglomerate owned by right-wing troublemaker Rupert Murdoch putting “A People’s History” blowout in prime time? It made no sense.
Damon told the critics that the Fox folks were “really nice.” But Zinn’s book is not so nice. It paints a dark vision of oppression and injustice in America and tells of its victims, who often served as road kill in the relentless push to colonize and industrialize the nation.
As the narrative began to take shape, Fox got cold feet.
“At some point in the middle of one of these two-hour sessions, we’d say, ” Damon recalls. ‘Are you guys sure that you want this?’
Eventually, the deal fell apart.
Then along came HBO. The anything-goes channel proposed fictionalizing each chapter of the book. John Sayles was engaged to develop the screenplay. It was a massive effort that would’ve made “John Adams” look like a police procedural. Alas, it finally tottered over from its own weight.
Had it been another historian, the project might have ended right there at HBO’s doorstep. But the guys had more than a scholar on their hands in Howard Zinn. They had a force of nature.
Now in his late 80s, Zinn [at the right in the picture, next to Marisa Tomei] seemed 20 years younger as he carried on animatedly during the press conference. He’s not shy about promoting his own work, and he has a teacher’s ability to engage a room, even one filled with jaded journalists.
I asked him if he’s surprised that any TV channel besides C-SPAN was interested in broadcasting his ideas.
“Of course!” he replied, getting a laugh from the audience. “The four of us started 10 years ago, when Fox television evinced an interest, which turned out to be temporary” — he shrugged, got a laugh — “and then HBO. So yeah, there have been doubts all along about whether anybody would pick it up.”
What saved the project was Zinn’s insatiable need to get his ideas out to the public. Working with publisher Anthony Arnove, Zinn in 2003 developed a spoken-word performance of characters from his book called, aptly, “The People Speak.” Marisa Tomei, Kurt Vonnegut and other notables lent their voices, embodying such diverse Americans as Frederick Douglass, a Gulf War resister and a worker in the mills of Lowell, Mass.
The live readings were a hit. Chris Moore, who had seen two TV adaptations end in frustration, attended one of the performances. And the two paths merged.
“In 2007 we started filming the performances on the theory of ‘if we build it, they will come,’ ” Arnove said. And eventually the History channel came along and said yes.
“This was (the) third incarnation, and it’s actually the most sensible way to do it because it’s using words, actual words, and that makes it so much more compelling,” Damon said.
The centerpiece is a two-hour film, “The People Speak,” airing this fall on History. But there will be a multi-disc DVD set and a live road show as well. Nancy Dubuc, the executive in charge of History — and a onetime student of Zinn’s — called the film “truly a celebration of democracy” and a collection of “unforgettable everyday stories that shaped our landscape.”
Then she showed a clip, and it looked inspiring, all right. But that is just not the “People’s History” that I read way back when. Though energetically written, the book was a depressing chronicle of death, destruction and defeats suffered by minorities, women and lower-class Americans over 300 years.
I mean, what’s next — “Manufacturing Consent: The Musical”?
“There are people who read the book, and they read about the struggles that people have made and the oppression that people have endured, and they come away depressed, which then depresses me,” Zinn said when I raised the topic.
“But if you read through the whole book — and I’ve had so many reactions like this — so many people are inspired by the fact that people fought back all the way through. The slaves fought back. The ex-slaves fought back. The Revolutionary War soldiers fought back against their conditions. The working people fought back against employers. Victories were won. There weren’t just defeats.
“And the victories were won not because the government — the three branches of government — came through and did the right thing. The victories were won because ordinary people, ordinary citizens got together and struggled, whether they were against slavery or for the eight-hour day or for the rights of women or against war.”
Marisa Tomei, sitting to his right, chimed in.
“It took awhile and a few readings for me to really understand this,” said Tomei, who was one of the more vocal celebrities speaking out against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“Sometimes in protests and things that I’ve been involved in, I’m like, ‘I’m tired of this. Isn’t this battle over?’ And what this is talking about is that it is our right and our duty to engage in, as Howard says, an antagonistic discussion with the powers that be.”#