Sundance Film Festival

A Friendly Reminder from Howard Zinn that U.S. History is Mostly Horrific

Celebrities, from the A list on down, are a dime a dozen at Sundance, where even nobodies (like me) walk around acting like they belong here—like they’re more important than that nobody walking in the opposite direction.

What’s truly rare at Sundance is someone who looks like they don’t belong. Like Howard Zinn.

The aged, V-necked author of the textbook corrective A People’s History of the United States, Zinn couldn’t have looked more out of place among the actors who took the ASCAP Music CafĂ© stage yesterday afternoon, one by one, to read from People’s primary-source companion, Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Among the readers were three freshly named Academy Award nominees—Josh Brolin, Marisa Tomei, and Melissa Leo—as well as Benjamin Bratt, Woody Harrelson, Robert Redford, and others. (Several of them read on the audio version of the book, and Zinn is holding similar readings elsewhere while being filmed for a documentary on the subject.)

“At first we were astounded [the actors] would come,” Zinn told the packed crowd. “Now we’re blase about it.”

Bratt went first, and read a graphic passage about the slaughter of Native Americans. His baritone was legitimately compelling, but something about it made me uncomfortable—all of these celebrities, all of these cameras, all of these craning necks. Yes, maybe the event was bringing attention to the forgotten or ignored horrors of American history. I can support that. But something about it seemed so self-serving, and so contrived.

I slipped out once Bratt finished. I’ve read Zinn’s work, and hearing Woody Harrelson read it to me wasn’t going to make these stories any more, or less, compelling than they already were. I suppose if you lived in a bubble in L.A. and never knew that the U.S., like all countries ever, built itself up by oppressing others, then maybe—if you didn’t space out, or spend the entire time staring at celebrities—you found it all very informative indeed.