The People's Historian

Documentary shines a light on the luminous Howard Zinn.

Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train Cleveland Cinematheque September 9-12
Howard Zinn's smile is infectious. Let's hope his - optimism is, too.
Howard Zinn's smile is infectious. Let's hope his optimism is, too.
The first thing you notice about Howard Zinn, the wildly popular populist historian and activist, is that he's beautiful. The deep creases in his face radiate from his almost-constant smile, his eyes sparkle with warmth, and his cheeks glow with ruddy life. At 80-plus, Zinn emanates a sheen that spreads cheer even as he exposes the corruption, deceit, and violence that characterize the lion's share of the history he studies. Zinn's beauty is the beauty of righteousness, of a lifetime of living according to compassionate moral convictions, of acting on those convictions, and of educating and mobilizing countless others to do the same.

What a great subject for a documentary. Jovial, passionate, and stunningly knowledgeable, Zinn carries Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train with effortless grace. Co-directors Denis Mueller and Deb Ellis allow him to tell his life story through interviews and through his books, quotes from which are read by narrator Matt Damon. The directors also interview Zinn's friends and associates, luminaries such as Alice Walker, Marion Wright Edelman, Noam Chomsky, and Daniel Berrigan. Zinn is well loved, and it's easy to see why. His belief in justice and hope for change are infectious.

Zinn began life in Brooklyn, with few advantages. His parents were poorly educated, and though his mother was intelligent, the tenements the family occupied contained no books. Zinn scavenged Tarzan novels on the street; later, his parents used coupons to get him a full set of Dickens. It was an auspicious selection. Through Dickens, Zinn learned that poverty was neither uniquely contemporary nor uniquely American. He understood that other boys had suffered from the same disadvantages in other countries and at other times. This connection -- this early sense of community -- would have a lasting effect on Zinn's worldview.

As a young man, Zinn worked in a shipyard; he attended his first demonstration at 17. When World War II ignited, Zinn could have remained in the shipyards, building military vessels, but he volunteered for the air force instead. "I was a politically aware young person," he says. "I wanted to fight against fascism." Zinn flew fighters and dropped bombs on European cities, including a small town in France where, his superiors assured him, German soldiers were stationed. Later, Zinn learned that he had dropped napalm and that several thousand people had been killed, including French civilians. He began to question "the total goodness of that war."

Back in America, Zinn rejoined the working class, living in low-income housing projects with his wife and their young children. He put himself through college and graduate school, studying history while working full-time. It was in graduate school that Zinn began to see the gaping holes in his textbooks, the absence of entire points of view -- including those of Native Americans, African Americans, laborers, and women. He heard accounts of coal miners' strikes in Woody Guthrie's folk songs, but couldn't find the stories anywhere in print. To Zinn, these omissions were grave problems in need of remedy.

As a professor at Spelman, the African American college in Atlanta, Zinn was vital to the burgeoning civil-rights movement. Unlike other professors, Zinn encouraged his students to march, accompanied them at demonstrations, and taught them the history that supported their cause. "He captured the essence of the revolutionary spirit," says Alice Walker, a former student. Marion Wright Edelman concurs: "His capacity for moral outrage . . . fed my spirit. Having [him] affirm [my] own instincts was extremely important for me."

At Boston University in the '60s, Zinn served as a bulwark of the peace movement and began to write the books that filled the gaps he had discovered, including Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. As a teacher, he was adored and revered; his lively classes drew 400 students every semester. In 1980, Zinn published the book that secured his fame, The People's History of the United States, in which he examines the entire history of America (beginning in 1492) from the point of view of the previously disregarded. Now in its fifth printing, the book has sold over a million copies; at this writing, its sales rank on is 146, with 408 customer reviews.

In a time of war, polarization, and dark foreboding, the unfailingly hopeful Zinn is a welcome antidote to many of the doomsday prophets of the American Left. In a moving speech toward the end of the film, he says of his view of history: "I'm supposing -- or perhaps only hoping -- that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion, rather than in the solid centuries of warfare." Zinn has seen the worst, but he focuses on the best, inspiring and encouraging others to move forward from a place of kindness. Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train is a reflection of its subject, acutely aware of a world history of brutality and injustice, and beautifully convinced of the power of the people. You are apt to leave it with a smile.

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