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DVD Review: Soul of a People

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The history of one of the most controversial of the new deal agencies created to help at least one segment of workers during the depression, the Federal Writers' Project, is detailed in the Smithsonian Networks' Soul of a People: Writing America's Story available on DVD, June 29th. The documentary runs a little over an hour and a half and uses the letterbox format and Dolby Digital Surround Sound. Directed and produced by Andrea Kalin, it is based on David Taylor's 2009 book, Soul of a People: The Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America, and narrated by actress, Patricia Clarkson.

Using archival newsreel footage, still photographs and even scenes from Hollywood movies, Soul of a People transports the viewer back to the 1930's: breadlines, ramshackle shack cities, raggedy children with little to eat. It crystallizes the catastrophic problem that would face Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he stood to accept the democratic nomination for President in 1932, and announced a "new deal" for the American people, should he happen to win the election. In the famed first hundred days in office, the new President threw an alphabetic barrage at the problems, the NRA, the CCC, the FDIC, and the WPA.

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was charged with providing jobs for the millions of unemployed workers. They worked on roads and parks. They built public buildings. They labored on dams and bridges. Under the leadership of Harry Hopkins, the agency sought to keep up the morale of the workforce, keep their talents sharp for the future, and pour needed money into the economy. The program's success led to expansion. If job creation for laborers worked, why not job creation for artists, for intellectuals, for writers. The Federal Writers Project was aimed at out of work writers—good writers, bad writers, it made no difference. Whether the work itself was significant wasn't the central concern; the important thing was to create opportunities for employment.

This is not to say that there was nothing of import produced under the agency's auspices; the film makes very clear that there was much good work done in documenting the history of race relations in the country, in the collection of oral history, and in the creation of a series of guide books to each of the different states. This is to say nothing of the important literary figures who found employment with the agency: Zora Neale Hurston, Jim Thompson, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, John Cheever, and Vardis Fisher, to name just a few.

The FWP's history becomes rocky when the socialistic leanings of many of its employees became the target of the newly created House Un-American Activities Committee headed by Texas congressmen Martin Dies. Dies took as his mandate the need to weed out the nest of subversives that had infiltrated the New Deal, and the FWP became an easy target. The controversy did not kill off the agency immediately. It didn't come to an end until 1943, but its work was curtailed to a great extent.

As is typical with the documentary, the film makes use of a variety of commentators to make its points. There are historians like Douglas Brinkley and Maryemma Graham. There are oral historians like Studs Terkel and Stetson Kennedy. Actors are used to read the words of many of the deceased writers who took part in the project.

In a period of our history when we have at least temporarily managed to avoid another great depression, when we are still plagued by much too large numbers of unemployed, a look back at how these problems were dealt with in the past, is not a bad idea. In a period of our history, when complaints about big government horning in where it has no business, when charges of socialism and fascism are bandied about with regularity, a visit to the birth of big government is not out of place. No matter what your political persuasion, a look back can't hurt. Even in the worst of times, there is hope, and it is hope that is the theme of Soul of a People.

The DVD contains some deleted scenes, including some more of the Studs Terkel interview, which was one of the last he did before his death.

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