‘The People Speak’

Television Critic

The history of the United States is, essentially, one of dissent. Certain elected officials may have managed to establish legacies of transformation, but real change in this country has inevitably begun not with politicians but the peanut gallery.

Workers and writers, activists and artists, intellectuals, immigrants and everyday people who found one situation or another intolerable and decided to do something about it. No serious social or political change in this country -- not independence, not abolition, not women’s suffrage or the minimum wage or civil rights or the New Deal -- came about without anger and protest and, often as not, violence.

Democracy is not a political theory, it’s a political activity.

That is the leitmotif of “The People Speak,” a series of dramatic readings from inspiring historical documents that airs on the History Channel on Sunday night. Based on Howard Zinn’s revisionist “A People’s History of the United States,” “The People Speak” employs the talents of Hollywood heavy hitters, including Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Marisa Tomei, Don Cheadle, Josh Brolin, Sandra Oh, Viggo Mortensen, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and provides a striking, exhilarating and at times horrifying reminder of not just our indomitable ability to change but also this country’s collective history of oppression.

According to Zinn, who narrates, the revolutionary spirit that produced the Declaration of Independence had already been compromised by the time the Constitution replaced “pursuit of happiness” with “property,” assuming a ruling class of white, male property owners. Over the next 250 years, individuals would fight to restore the proper definition of the word “equality.”

Class division is a drumbeat throughout “The People Speak,” which is a primer of liberal ideology with a decided bent toward socialism; no one’s reading a few rousing passages of Ayn Rand’s, for instance. The letters and journals and speeches selected cover the American timeline, from the abolitionists through AIDS activists, but the theme of personal and political enfranchisement, tolerance, peace and American humility is the consistent theme. Equal rights, protection of workers, protection of children, even rent control are celebrated while concepts such as patriotism -- the last refuge of scoundrels, according to pacifist and anarchist Emma Goldman -- and national security are portrayed as the whip and cattle prod used by the power elite. Even World War II is cast as a false model for American military domination.

The producers of “The People Speak,” who include Brolin and Damon, clearly intend “The People Speak” as a wake-up call to Americans who feel that their duty as citizens begins and ends at the ballot box, but that call does not seem to include those of a more conservative nature.

Still, the reminder that no president, no Congress, no government ever solved a problem or righted an injustice until prodded into action by protest seems particularly resonant in the wake of President Obama’s election, a feat many seemed to believe guaranteed instant, sweeping reformation.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” said Frederick Douglass. “It never did and it never will.”

Without exception, the performances are thrilling, but it is the authors, not the actors, who are the stars here. For a nation grown accustomed to weepy personal confession, to the cynical invective of political commentators on both the right and the left, and the carefully worded rhetoric of politicians, the eloquence, force and bluntness of people such as Susan B. Anthony, Douglass, César Chávez and Malcolm X are a shock to the system and a welcome reminder that when real change comes, it is neither gentle nor deferential.

Like the voices it showcases, “The People Speak” is clear in its politics: Everyone is entitled not only to equality under the law but also to share equally in the fruits of his or her collective labor. “Maybe a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but a piece of a big one,” wrote John Steinbeck. “Two fighting back to back can fight through a mob . . . a dozen can make a demonstration . . . ten million their own country,” wrote poet and novelist Marge Piercy.

Or in the simple words of Woody Guthrie, covered here, of course, by Springsteen: “This land is your land, this land is my land.” Words we too often forget were, and are, revolutionary.