Photo Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Did you catch Matt Damon's star-studded documentary, The People Speak, on the History Channel Sunday night? Did you like it? Your answer may well depend on what side of the political fence you're sitting.
Based on the 1980 best-seller A People's History of the United States, by renowned history professor Howard Zinn, the documentary's premise was simple: You didn't get the whole story from your American history textbooks. "History is always gonna be from somebody's point of view," says Damon. "You have to think about who's telling you and why. You can't just accept what you read or what you're told."
So Damon and fellow actor Josh Brolin assembled a large group of celebrity pals--Viggo Mortenson, Morgan Freeman, Bob Dylan, Kerry Washington, Pink, Bruce Springsteen, and Marisa Tomei, among others--to read the oratory, petitions, songs, and letters of some of U.S. history's lesser-known figures. Instead of standard-issue anecdotes about George Washington crossing the Potomac, for instance, we hear from a soldier who witnessed General Washington's cruelty in tamping down possible mutiny.
Instead of a boilerplate Reaganomics lesson, we hear Marian Wright Edelman's 1983 commencement address at Milton Academy. "What kind of world allows 40,000 children to die every day?" recites Jasmine Guy, in Edelman's words. "Where are the strong political voices speaking out for investing in children rather than bombs? Just one hour's worth of President Reagan's proposed defense increase this year in military spending would pay for free school lunches for nineteen thousand children this year."
And instead of learning about the Civil War through the records of battlefield generals and politicians, Benjamin Bratt reads the words of runaway slave J.W. Loguen, in a letter to his former master, Sarah Logue in 1860. "You say that you sold my brother and sister, Abe and Ann, and twelve acres of land, because I ran away," reads Bratt. "You say you have office to buy me… And in the same sentence, you say, 'You know we raised you as our own children.' Woman, did you raise your own children for the market? Did you raise them for the whipping post?"
All this seems pretty straightforward, but the varied responses to the documentary prove otherwise. Damon's well-known passion for history (another Howard Zinn book was referenced in Good Will Hunting) and his left-wing politics (speaking out against the war, campaigning for Obama, and disparaging Sarah Palin) have turned off some fans.
Certainly, for some, knowing Damon's political views colors their reactions to The People Speak. Conservative viewers who don't agree with Damon's politics feel that the special brings America down, as if the participants are saying, "History books airbrushed out the darker aspects of our country." Before the special even aired, conservative website parcbench posted this critique:
"The production uses Hollywood celebrities to deliver a self-loathing view of the United States through selective speeches, letters and diaries…Forget fact. It’s all about context instead of text these days. Don’t listen to someone’s educated opinion; think for yourself. Forget researching the totality of an historical event. Nowadays all you need to do to get an ‘A’ is define history through one of the famous “-isms”; racism, sexism, and classism being at the top, of course…Leftist drek like The People Speak focuses on America’s sins and failings."
Naturally, that analysis stands in stark contrast to opinions published in left-leaning papers, such as The New York Times:
"So much of Mr. Zinn’s career, reflected in his People’s History of the United States book, has been about the struggle for social change… Some of the readings, like Ms. Tomei’s, are especially resonant now, given the perceptible anger in the country about banks and bailouts. 'That’s by design,' Mr. Damon said. 'What they were up against oftentimes are exactly the same things we’re up against now.'"
Apparently, when it comes to influencing people, Damon is up against his own celebrity. Sometimes fame acts as a deterrent. Would conservatives have been more open to the production's message if Damon hadn't made it? On the other hand, would the doc have even gotten made without a celebrity like Damon to wrangle other stars to participate? Perhaps history will tell.
Does knowing an actor's political views affect how much you enjoy his or her work? Chime in below!