Along with his linguist contemporary Noam Chomsky, the late historian Howard Zinn was a major pioneer in leftist thinking during the latter part of the 20th century. His bestselling book, A People’s History of the United States – first published in 1980 – provided a groundbreaking chronicle of the various populist and progressive movements that helped shape the nation, offering up an antidote to traditional textbooks where history was always told from the viewpoint of those in power.
Zinn passed away in 2010, but his work continues to live on both in print and on the screen, first in a 2004 film narrated by Matt Damon, and now in a three-part French-language documentary revisiting the book that made him famous. Directed by Olivier Azam and Daniel Mermet, Howard Zinn, une histoire populaire americaine is an informative if uninventive first installment that focuses primarily on the late 1800’s and early 1900’s – a time when massive industrialization gave rise to organized labor, as well as to a wave of violent repressions undertaken by the one-percenters of the day.
For those familiar with Zinn’s life, the film’s opening sequences won’t provide any new information. But it’s still an essential part of his backstory to see how his political views were shaped by a childhood spent in poor working-class Brooklyn, followed by a stint as an Air Force bombardier during World War II. It was while flying missions in France and Czechoslovakia, where he participated in napalm bombing raids, that Zinn witnessed the devastating effects of the U.S. military and began developing an anti-war stance.
In A People’s History, Zinn’s research stretches all the way back to the 15th century, but the movie mostly concentrates on the rise of labor in the late 19th century, when Robber Barons like Norman Rockefeller amassed a wealth equal to $180 billion in today’s dollars, or roughly three times the net worth of Bill Gates. (An animated Rockefeller puppet is featured several times in the film saying some pretty awful things, but the effect is mitigated by the rather cheesy special effects.)
As the capitalists consolidated their wealth, key figures like Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones helped spark a movement that would give rise to the eight-hour workday, child labor laws and the powerful IWW union. The directors revisit major historical sites of the period, including the Haymarket district in Chicago and the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where strikebreakers and state militia quashed protests, killing dozens of workers.
Interviews with Zinn, Chomsky and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges are interspersed with reams of archive footage, photos, paintings, editorial cartoons and excerpts from films by Charlie Chaplin. The effect can be a bit overwhelming with so much to take in at once, and Azam and Mermet try to cover a lot of ground in only 105 minutes, spanning a few centuries and ending this chapter (entitled “Bread and Roses” – the slogan used during the Lawrence strike) just after WWI.
Stylistically speaking, the filmmakers don’t really adopt a specific point of view, and it often feels like they’re trying to cram in as much data as possible (Zinn’s dense book is over 700 pages long). During the final section, they briefly delve into the propaganda mechanisms developed by public relations pioneer Edward Bernays, which only makes one long for the more thorough and convincing treatment of the subject found in Adam Curtis’ excellent BBC documentary, The Century of the Self.
Despite its drawbacks, Howard Zinn does offer up a well-researched primer for those previously unaware of the historian’s vital work – especially French-speaking viewers who were only introduced to A People’s History when it was translated in 2002. Otherwise, the film could see play with pubcasters and doc fests, along with European art houses showcasing this kind of politically potent fare.
Production companies: Les Mutins de Pangee
Directors, screenwriters: Olivier Azam, Daniel Mermet
Director of photography: Olivier Azam
Editor: Olivier Azam
Composers: Vincent Ferrand, Fred Alpi, Franck Haderer
International sales: Les Mutins de Pangee
No rating, 105 minutes