Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train

Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller's long-overdue profile of Howard Zinn, now 81, is narrated and funded in part by Matt Damon, whose GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997) paid homage to the radical historian and activist. The subtitle, taken from Zinn's 1994 memoir, is his response to students who question his objectivity. "Certain events are already moving in certain deadly...read more

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Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller's long-overdue profile of Howard Zinn, now 81, is narrated and funded in part by Matt Damon, whose GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997) paid homage to the radical historian and activist. The subtitle, taken from Zinn's 1994 memoir, is his response to students who question his objectivity. "Certain events are already moving in certain deadly directions," he writes, "and to be neutral means to accept that." In Zinn's worldview, neutrality equals collaboration, and his life of political engagement embodies his belief that it's incumbent upon thinking individuals to choose a side and intercede in history. Raised poor on New York City's Lower East Side, Zinn credits the novels of Charles Dickens — bought by his working-class father for 10 cents and a coupon — with awakening him to the fact that poverty is a universal condition. As an adolescent, he experienced another revelation at an American Communist Party demonstration in Times Square: Knocked unconscious by a policeman, it suddenly occurred to Zinn that the police and the government were far from neutral entities. Yet another key event took place during the final days of WWII when, as a bombardier, Zinn and his crew dropped napalm on a small French village; the senseless cruelty of the act led Zinn toward his enduring belief in nonviolent struggle. When asked how he wound up teaching at Spellman, an all-black college in the American South, on the eve of the Civil Rights movement, Zinn credits serendipity — Spellman was willing to hire him — but his involvement in the nascent movement was no accident. Nor was his dismissal after voicing support for students who challenged the school's administration. Taking seriously the duty of historians to use their knowledge to help students confront institutional power, Zinn spoke plainly about his strong opposition to the war in Vietnam and in 1971 was beaten and arrested after addressing a crowd of protesters on the Boston Commons and ran afoul of Boston University's draconian president, John Silber. Constructed primarily from lectures and original interviews conducted by the filmmakers, Ellis and Mueller's film is augmented with carefully selected newsreel footage and readings by Damon from Zinn's writings — including his most famous tome, A People's History of the United States. It's an excellent introduction to a man whose thoughts on war, peace and dissent have become increasingly influential in ever more confusing times.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller's long-overdue profile of Howard Zinn, now 81, is narrated and funded in part by Matt Damon, whose GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997) paid homage to the radical historian and activist. The subtitle, taken from Zinn's 1994 memoir, is his… (more)

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