In the 1990s, Chicago filmmaker Denis Mueller produced several documentaries that focused on the darker moments in American history–films like The FBI’s War on Black America, John Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisitions, and Citizen Soldier: The Story of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. By 1997, Mueller says, he was looking to make a film about the nature of history itself–“how it relates to society and how it’s approached with different points of view.”
Then one day he happened upon Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian, a 1993 collection of essays and speeches by Howard Zinn, the retired Boston University professor who’s spent much of his own career challenging official versions of historical truth. “I knew who he was–I’d read A People’s History of the United States years ago, but I’d forgotten about it,” says Mueller, now a PhD candidate in American studies at Bowling Green State University. Inspired, he picked up Zinn’s 1994 autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. “I thought, he’s had a fascinating life–why don’t we do something on this guy?”
By the summer of 2001, Mueller and coproducer Deb Ellis (his sometime collaborator) had raised enough money to complete a rough cut of a video drawn from Zinn’s memoir, which documents his life from his working-class childhood in the slums of New York to his stint as a bombardier in World War II. From there he went on to teach at historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, until his civil-rights activism in the early 60s got him fired, and Boston University, where his support of students protesting the Vietnam War got him arrested.
The documentary also covers the 1980 publication of A People’s History, the radical reinterpretation of American history according to the underdogs that earlier this year hit one million in sales. Along the way, Mueller and Ellis interviewed Zinn as well as his former students Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman and his colleagues Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, and Tom Hayden. Hayden remarks at one point that Zinn “has managed to make himself useful, of service, to one generation of rebels after another.”
The filmmakers couldn’t have anticipated how true this statement would prove. After September 11, Zinn, then 79, reemerged as a leading critic of U.S. military and foreign policy. As a public speaker, he was suddenly more in demand than ever. “It really changed things–the war on terrorism gave the documentary a third act,” says Mueller. “We knew we would have an audience, but we never knew how timely the film would become–that he would become popular again and reach a whole new generation of young people.”
Mueller and Ellis applied for more grants and reworked the video as they followed Zinn on speaking tours to high schools, campuses, and rallies. “I felt like I was doing a road movie,” quips Mueller. The filmmakers also enlisted Matt Damon, who grew up next door to Zinn and is a longtime fan, to narrate excerpts from the historian’s books and recent antiwar articles, and interviewed Zinn one more time in Boston last year. “It’s exactly when you’re in the midst of a war, or about to go to war, that you need your freedom of speech,” Zinn remarks in that final interview. “If you are put in fear of speaking out, then democracy is severely crippled. That’s what’s happening today.”
Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train will be shown at 8 PM on Friday, October 10, at Columbia College Ferguson Theater, 600 S. Michigan. It’ll screen again at Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark, at 8 PM on Saturday, October 11. Mueller will be present at both screenings; both cost $7. Call 773-293-1447 for more information.