Judge Bryan Byun wants a massive, federally-funded public works project to pull the damn weeds in his front yard.
"At that moment sixty some years ago, there was that feeling. Hope is the word, I think. There was a feeling that something better was going on, and that you were doing had some kind of meaning. And the most important thing is, you must feel you count."—Studs Terkel
The Federal Writers' Project was one of the unsung gems of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. A tiny part of the Works Progress Administration created by FDR during the Great Depression to give jobs—and restore self-respect—to millions of desperate, unemployed Americans, the Writers' Project set nearly 7,000 people to the task of, essentially, writing America. This army of writers—including such soon-to-be familiar names as John Cheever, Studs Terkel, and Zora Neale Hurston—spread out all over the country, seeking out and interviewing ordinary people and recording their stories and life experiences.
Their primary task was to create a series of state guidebooks, but what they ended up with was something much more unusual: a people's oral history, a sprawling compendium of the experiences of Americans whose voices were typically ignored by history books. A racially integrated project, the FWP compiled such narratives as the experiences of black people under Jim Crow segregation, and the memories of still-living former slaves.
Naturally, once the politicians got wind of what the FWP was up to, the tempest began to rage. The FWP was attacked as (ironically) anti-American, pro-Communist, subversive, and a waste of taxpayers' money. One senator, Martin Dies (D-Texas), practically built his political fortunes upon his opposition to the FWP.
Soul of a People: Writing America's Story, a Smithsonian Networks documentary, tells the story of the Federal Writers' Project through copious period footage, talking-head interviews, and readings (by contemporary authors) of the words of FWP participants both famous (Richard Wright) and obscure (Vardis Fisher, an irascible Idaho writer who proved to be a thorn in the side of FWP head Henry Alsberg). While the structure is a little academic—we get a dutifully linear run-through of the history of the FWP, from its founding out of the massive despair of the Depression, through the printing of the final guidebook (Oklahoma) and later careers of its prominent participants—it's a fascinating story that I'm guessing most Americans have never heard.
At 92 minutes, Soul of a People can't hope to offer more than a small sampling of the stories the FWP captured, and focuses on a handful of writers at the necessary expense of many other interesting participants (an entire documentary could be made just on Zora Neale Hurston's participation). But while it's not the comprehensive treatment this subject deserves—Ken Burns, where are you?—it's a well-paced, informative essay that's often quite touching.
Audio and video quality are uniformly excellent, with a clear and bright full-frame picture and a 5.1 audio track that does the job. Extra features are a little underwhelming—we get a couple of deleted scenes, including a longer interview with Studs Terkel (who died shortly after the documentary was made, and to whom it is dedicated).
While the topic of a federal public works project sounds about as interesting as a corporate training video, no one with an interest in literature or American cultural history should skip Soul of a People—especially if you've never (or only vaguely) heard of the Federal Writers' Project, it's a small but remarkable piece of Americana that deserves much more attention than it's gotten.
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