You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: Documentary about Activist Howard Zinn

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.

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