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Atlanta Journal-Constitution

People Speak Tells Extraordinary Works of 'Ordinary People'

Katie Leslie

For many people, history class was a lesson in keeping one's eyes open. Or as writer Anthony Arnove puts it: "It was rote recitation of facts, military battles, great people elevated in society... It had nothing to do with me and my experience."

He is among a group of people hoping to change that. Arnove, partnering with famed historian and author Howard Zinn, are behind "The People Speak," a documentary which depicts pivotal moments in American history from ordinary people. Bringing it to life are a host of noted musicians and actors, including Viggo Mortensen, Bruce Springsteen, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei and Matt Damon, one of the producers of the film.

"The People Speak," which airs Sunday night on The History Channel, was based on Zinn's books, "A People's History of the United States" and "Voices of a People's History of the United States," the latter co-written with Arnove.

"[Zinn] saw all of this history being made by ordinary people that was not being taught in college textbooks," Arnove said, telling of Zinn's time as a professor at Spelman College when Alice Walker attended the school.

Those were the voices Zinn incorporated into his books, nuggets of history not taught in traditional textbooks, Arnove explained. Portions of the books were eventually performed in live recorded readings, centered around categories of women, race, class and war, that compose "The People Speak" film.

Arnove and actors Jasmine Guy and Michael Ealy recently visited Emory University with Arnove to promote the documentary.

"The live experience, the filming process, was really incredible," Guy said, explaining that actors and musicians practiced their lines backstage in character. "We had Frederick Douglass in one corner and Martin Luther King in another and Abraham Lincoln... it was deep."

Guy said she was most touched by the work of Abbey Lincoln, whom she knew as an actress and singer, but not as an activist. Guy depicted Lincoln, Alice Walker, Sylvia Woods and others in the film.

"In reading it, it was so raw and it kind of touched a nerve with me because it was talking about the acceptance of our own beauty as black women and how we can't ever seem to get it right," Guy said of Lincoln's work. "And I think those people you don't expect to come out with these profound powerful moving words really moved me the most because they did come from everyday people."

Ealy, known for his roles in the "Barbershop" films, said he was most humbled to perform the parts of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.

"When reading the parts, I thought that's unique to take those two pivotal figures and juxtapose them," he said. "I was most inspired by Muhammad Ali, just being a very big fan of his and hearing his words about a very controversial subject and the timeliness of it now, and whether or not there would be someone... who would take the same stand."

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