On Sunday, December 13, at 8 p.m., the biggest do-gooding nerds of the celebrity world will debut The People Speak on the History Channel. The special is a collection of live readings of little-known speeches and letters collected in Howard Zinn’s revisionist-history tomes A People’s History of the United States and Voices of A People’s History of the United States, read by such sincerely sincere actors as Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Viggo Mortensen, and Danny Glover, in a manner that, says Damon, “hopefully won’t put you to sleep.” The actor, who grew up next door to Zinn in Boston, said the idea for the documentary came after a 2003 event at the 92nd Street Y that celebrated A People’s History selling a million copies. “They wanted to get a bunch of historians to read passages from the book, and Howard said, ‘Even I wouldn’t go to that.’” So Zinn called Damon, who called some famous, less tweedy friends, and The People Speak was born.
Brolin reads Mark Twain’s invective against Theodore Roosevelt for having ordered a massacre in the Philippines, Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder sing protest songs, and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels reads Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” which DMC insists is a natural fit. “That’s what hip-hop represents,” he says. “Hearing what the people were speaking, what’s on their minds, what they were experiencing, and what they were feeling during those tumultuous times in history. For me, personally, it’s like bringing a history book to life, because everywhere I go, people always ask me, ‘DMC, who’s the best rapper, Tupac or Biggie?’ And I go, ‘Chuck D.’ Chuck is like God, God came down to rock the microphone. But rapping, there’s parts of the record where it’s mumbled, so when I was reading ‘Fight the Power,’ I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know he said that!’”
When the readings were filmed at auditoriums, the big draw for young attendees was Lupe Fiasco, who, he says, liked to tell the kids that it was Zinn who was “O.G. What he did and what he’s pushing with the movie and the books and all that, I think it’s something that crosses cultures, crosses beyond white, black, Chinese, Asian, whatever. You know, it speaks to everybody.” And he says this is just the beginning of a long, fruitful collaborative relationship with Zinn. “We’re doing a song,” he says, “and I might be on the cover of his next book, called The History of the Young, Black, and Sexy.”