First Run Features // 2004 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // June 6th, 2005
This acclaimed film looks at the amazing life of Howard Zinn, the renowned historian, activist, and author.
A brief summary of Howard Zinn's life is ably presented in this professionally mounted documentary. The film follows his career as a WWII veteran, working-class family man, history professor, anti-war activist, and author.
At the film's beginning, Matt Damon (Rounders, Good Will Hunting) narrates from Zinn's autobiography, "I've always resented the smug statement of politicians, media commentators, and corporate executives who talked of how, in America, if you worked hard enough you would become rich. The meaning of that was: If you are poor, you haven't worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie, about my father and millions of others -- men and women who worked harder than anyone." The film goes on to recount Howard Zinn's upbringing in New York City, where his family lived in a succession of grim apartments and coldwater flats. To escape the confines of his living space, he spent much of his free time in the streets or schoolyard playing stickball, softball, and football, or taking boxing lessons from a Golden Glove boxer who lived in the neighborhood.
Zinn says there were literally no books at home. The first book he read was a discarded copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan and the Jungles of Opar that he found in the street. His parents, knowing Howard loved to read, responded to an ad in the New York Post, which stated that for one dime and a few coupons the company would send a whole set of the works of Dickens. Zinn says, "The books started coming, and I read them all." He says reading Dickens made him aware that other people had written about the conditions of the poor, and it planted the idea in his mind that he might someday become a writer.
Zinn discusses his U.S. Air Force tour as a bombardier, and how he and his crew bombed a small town in France in the final weeks of World War II where several thousand Germans were waiting out the end of the war, no longer fighting. They dropped canisters of jellied gasoline, later dubbed napalm; it was the first use of napalm in the European Theater. Zinn's later contemplation of that event was the impetus for his philosophy of nonviolence and later involvement in the Vietnam anti-war movement.
After the war, Zinn returned to the working-class life. He worked in a warehouse loading trucks and lived in a low-income housing project in Manhattan for seven years with his wife and two young children, where they struggled to raise their family while he attended college. As Zinn says, "they were the hard times that are typical for young, working-class kids who get married early on...and then face the double problem of bringing up kids and at the same time struggling for economic survival." He earned his doctorate in history in 1956 and started job hunting.
Howard Zinn's teaching career began in the late 1950s at Spelman College, a black liberal arts college in Atlanta. According to Zinn, the South was the only place in the country he did not wish to teach, but after speaking to the college president he changed his mind and accepted the position. Within a year, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and he found himself deeply involved in the struggle. Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) and Marian Wright Edelmen (president of the Children's Defense Fund), present-day admirers and former students of Howard Zinn, provide some commentary on what he was like as a teacher and an activist. Edelmen says, "his capacity for moral outrage, which is in much deficit today, was a thing that fed my spirit...I don't understand how there aren't more people who are just profoundly upset at the racial injustice, at the economic injustice...Having Howard Zinn affirm one's own instincts was an enormously important thing for me as a young black girl."
In addition to the Walker and Edelmen segments, there are numerous interviews of friends and colleagues, as well as several interviews with Zinn himself. The documentary manages to cram a remarkable amount of information into a bit less than an hour and twenty minutes. It goes on to spotlight many aspects of Zinn's life: his confrontations with Boston University President John Silber in 1971, his role in Vietnam War protests, his acts of civil disobedience, discussion of his continued commitment to find nonviolent solutions to national problems, and a short speech at the Boston Commons in 2002 on democracy and citizen participation.
Howard Zinn is best known for A People's History of the United States, a book first published in 1980 that eschews the "great men" approach to history and focuses instead on the American experience as seen through the eyes of laborers, blacks, women, native Americans, immigrants, and others whose stories are seldom found in traditional history texts. As he writes in the final chapter, "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance. That makes it a biased account. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction -- so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements -- that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission."
An audience member at a lecture at Campos High School in Chicago asked Zinn how fellow historians received his book. He said his book was never reviewed in the main journal of historians, The American Historical Review, because it was not really written for them. On the one hand, a professor of history at Harvard, a Nixon admirer and supporter of the Vietnam War, hated the book because "it paid too much attention to the Indians." On the other hand, historian Eric Foner praised the book in his New York Times review, Zinn says, "because he is a progressive historian with a point of view closer to mine." The upshot, of course, is that historians are as biased as anyone else, and their judgments will reflect those biases. Refreshingly, Zinn does not hide his point of view beneath a veil of so-called objectivity, but interprets events through the lives of common people -- for example, the industrial revolution as experienced by women who worked in textile factories -- or what wealthy elites refer to as "the rabble."
Howard Zinn's interviews are as direct and unpretentious as his writing. In 1998 he received a Eugene Debs Award in the field of education. During his acceptance speech he states that even at the graduate level of study there was no reference to labor struggles, and that the textbooks were giving students the "same point of view that you received in elementary school, only with footnotes." As an example of censored history, in an interview following the speech he talks about hearing Woody Guthrie's dark, haunting song "The Ludlow Massacre" and hunting down references to the event in the library. Zinn found that striking miners in Ludlow, Colorado, had been driven out of their company-owned housing and were living in a tent colony on public land. On April 20, 1914, Colorado militiamen, hired detectives, and coal company guards attacked the miners and their families by shooting into the tents and setting them on fire. At least twenty people died, including 11 children. The miners lost the strike, and not a single perpetrator was prosecuted; but news of the murders affected people across the country and possibly helped the unions with their organizing efforts in the long run.
On one of the disc extras, filmmakers Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller provide a bit of text about the creation of the film. Mueller says the project was begun in 1997 with Howard Zinn's approval, and Ellis -- with her twenty years of behind-the-scenes experience on independent film projects -- offered her services as producer and codirector free of charge. The project languished in her basement in various edited forms for several years, until they received funding that allowed them to finish the film. Other extras include an audio-only speech that Zinn gave in 1971 and a filmed speech at the Veterans for Peace Conference in 2004. On another extra, a short interview on human nature and aggression, Zinn refutes the claim that humans are naturally warlike, which he says inevitably comes up in any discussion on war; someone will always say, "oh well, it's human nature." Part of his argument is that a draft, and the attendant patriotic propaganda blitz, would not be needed to coerce citizens to enlist if we were genetically predisposed to war. He also discusses his experience with the attitudes of fellow servicemen in WWII, and all his arguments taken together are convincing.
The picture is as good as any I have viewed for a documentary, and better than most. It's crisp, clear, and shows no obvious defects. Even the archival black-and-white footage from the 1950s-'60s civil rights era looks very clean. The dialogue is always understandable and mostly from the center channel, with occasional crowd sounds and music nicely mixed for the Dolby 2.0 stereo.
I admire Howard Zinn as a historian and a human being, and this film does him justice. Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train is a great companion to his written autobiography, or it can be viewed by itself as an introduction to his historical viewpoint and general philosophy. The film does not play the game of devil's advocate; it is purely a tribute to the 82-year-old Howard Zinn, and a finely crafted one at that.
After that rave you need a verdict? Very well, the court finds Mr. Zinn not guilty, by reason of extreme sanity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* On Human Nature and Aggression
* Speech at Veterans for Peace Conference, 2004
* Speech on Boston Common on Civil Disobedience, 1971 (Audio only)
* DVD-ROM Materials
* Trailer Gallery
* Howard Zinn's Znet Homepage