The first time Howard Zinn's now-classic book "A People's History of the United States" appeared on TV was in "The Sopranos" on HBO, when Tony's teenage son A.J. came home from school with a copy of the book and told his parents that, according to Zinn, Columbus was a slaveowner and murderer. Tony got mad, and replied, "In this house Columbus is a hero. End of story!"
That was 1999. This Sunday, Dec. 13, Zinn's "The People Speak" – the documentary inspired by his books "A People's History" and "Voices of a People's History," will be broadcast on the History channel at 8 PM/7 Central.
The documentary "gives voice to those who spoke up for social change throughout U.S. history," says Anthony Arnove, who produced and co-directed the show and co-edited the "Voices" book. The featured voices "forged a nation from the bottom up with their insistence on equality and justice" and "remind us never to take liberty for granted."
The History channel is best-known for WWII documentaries, which has earned it the nickname "the Hitler channel." "The People Speak" made it onto this unlikely site apparently because of the irresistible actors who appear in the documentary, including Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Morgan Freeman, and Sandra Oh, along with music performances by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Eddie Vedder, among others.
My personal favorites on "The People Speak": Malcolm X's "Message to the Grass Roots" from 1963: "America's problem is us. We're her problem." And Frederick Douglass's 1857 words, read by Don Cheadle: "Power concedes nothing without a demand."
"We wanted to choose words that had some meaning today," Zinn told me; "Not from Supreme Court decisions or presidential speeches, but from some people you've never heard of."
There's also a soundtrack on CD, and a big "People Speak" website with video and a classroom study guide. Atwo-disk DVD will be out in January. The "People's History" book, meanwhile, has now sold two million copies.
And the Christopher Columbus part that got Tony Soprano mad? It's in the documentary: the Spanish priest Bartolomeo Las Casas' "Brief Account" of "The Devastation of the Indies" – read by Viggo Mortensen.