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Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train

Directed by Deb Ellis & Denis Mueller

This film is a documentary about an American patriot, Howard Zinn, historian, activist and author of the book A People’s History of the United States. The film is made up of archival news clips, interviews with colleagues and former students, and footage of the 80-year old Zinn. Matt Damon narrates and reads from passages of Zinn’s work.

Zinn grew up poor in a New York tenement and discovered through the writings of Charles Dickens that they were other people in the world who experienced poverty much worse than he and his family did. His education about the way the world really works is very interesting. When he was 17 at an American Communist Party rally in Time Square, he was knocked unconscious by a baton and discovered that neither the police nor the government are neutral entities. He learned about the brutal Ludlow massacre in 1914 that was committed against striking mine workers in Colorado, not from history books, but a Woody Guthrie song. Another pivotal event took place during the end of WWII when his crew bombed a small French village with napalm because it had German soldiers in it. This inhumane brutal act was too much even for a war as far as Zinn was concerned.

After he returned, he became a teacher through the GI bill. In 1956, the only job he could get was at Spelman College, an almost all black school in Atlanta. He was involved in motivating and working with students right at the beginning of the civil rights movement. Zinn credits serendipity, but after watching this movie, it’s obvious that he would have gotten involved no matter where he lived. The ’60s saw him participate in anti-war protests against the Vietnam War, and he facilitated the return of three American pilots from North Vietnam.

The film makes it clear from the title alone, which is also the title of Zinn’s 1994 autobiography, that if you aren’t happy about the direction your country is heading and you fail to do anything about it, then you are complicit in the wrongs that your government commits. Anyone who is willing to stand up and protest non-violently about the mistakes that he thinks his country is making is an American hero. This film should be required viewing for high school students and naturalized citizens to make them realize that they need to be active participants in our democracy.

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    Sounds really interesting, El B. And if students are going to be shown films, this seems like it would be a good one.

    Really nice job on this review.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    I have the privilege of meeting Mr. Zinn earlier this year. This man has been one of my heroes since college. I very much enjoyed YCBNOAMT the book; the documentary sounds like a must-see. Thanks for the review.

  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Or, rather, “had” the privilege…

  • ClubhouseCancer

    Zinn is a great American. If you haven’t read The People’s History of the United States, you’ve missed something valuable.