“It is fantastically obvious what we’re doing,” film producer Chris Moore said onstage at BU’s Tsai Performance Center last night, in response to an audience member’s question about the involvement of celebrities like Matt Damon and John Legend in a new documentary Moore has worked on, The People Speak. “[We’re trying] to get people to watch it, to get the History Channel to put on this event, and to put it out there we need famous people… You’d rather see great people do stuff than average people.”
The People Speak, which will air on the History Channel on December 13, is a two-hour documentary consisting of well-known contemporary actors and musicians performing speeches, songs or other texts originally written by political activists from throughout American history. It is based on the book A People’s History of the United States by BU professor emeritus Howard Zinn, who, along with actor David Strathairn, joined Moore onstage for last night’s event. Strathairn, who performs in the documentary and is best known for his role as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, opened the evening by reciting an 1859 speech by radical abolitionist John Brown. That performance was followed by four clips from the film and a discussion moderated by CAS dean Virginia Sapiro.
Zinn said during the discussion that the film was not intended to comment directly on current issues so much as to illustrate the possibility of social change. “The anti-slavery movement felt helpless in the 1830s,” Zinn said, “and the labor movement felt helpless in the 1920s, and black people felt helpless in the 1940s, and then something happened. They did something, and history changed, and the world changed. It’s very important for young people to know that.”
However, Zinn did say later on that “here in the United States, you might say our great battle is to take the promises of Obama, which are being unfulfilled, and make them into reality.”
The involvement of actors and other entertainers in politics often elicits skepticism, if not outright disdain; for example, today’s Boston Herald article on this event is headlined, “Stars Converge to Tell Lefty Side of U.S. Story.” As such, much of the evening was spent discussing the role of entertainers in The People Speak and, more broadly, in politics generally. In a backstage interview, Strathairn emphasized a distinction between individual entertainers and Hollywood as an industry, saying, “To be somewhat crass and maybe somewhat reductive, Hollywood embraces something that is commercial, and this is not about that.”
Moore agreed, saying, “What happens to make [entertainment and politics] a more common crossover is that it’s all about this: Can you fill a room? David and Howard can fill a room, so we choose to talk about this when we fill a room. I’m sure you get other dudes who come here and talk about Twilight: New Moon, and they have that room full too.”