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Reviewed by:
  • Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train prod. and dir. by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller
  • Andrew M. Mayer
Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004)
Produced and directed by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller.
Distributed by First Run Features
78 minutes

Howard Zinn (1922- 2010) was a nationally known historian, author, playwright, and crusader for civil rights and the peace movement. Zinn came from humble origins, living in poor areas of New York City with a father, a waiter, who had a fourth grade education, and a mother with a seventh grade education. Though poor, he longed for education and learning. His first book was one that he found in the street, pages torn out.

That first torn book, found by Zinn in the street when his family had no books in their apartment, was Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. Over time, his parents introduced him to literature through the collected works of Charles Dickens, which they obtained by sending ten cents and a coupon to the New York Post for each of the 20 volumes. Zinn later explained that these volumes taught him, at a young age, about poverty as a [End Page 90] worldwide problem, not just something he experienced in New York. These early experiences sewed seeds of awareness in a boy who would grow champion the cause of factory workers and agricultural workers.

Ellis’s film follows Zinn in documentary style through these early years of his life. After working in the shipyards as a young man, he volunteered for the Air Force, yet returned from war as a bombardier over Germany and France profoundly disillusioned with the moral and emotional effects of war and its devastating casualty results in soldiers and civilians alike.

After his return, Zinn attended New York University under the GI Bill, and ultimately earned his Ph.D. at age 36 from Columbia University. His dissertation focused on Fiorello La Guardia’s career in Congress, which, he argued, represented “the conscience of the twenties.” Zinn taught history and served as department chair at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., from 1956-1963. There he interested his students in the process of desegregation via nonviolence. While at Spelman, he also served as advisor for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After being fired from the college for his participation in desegregation activities, Zinn accepted a position at Boston University, where he taught until his retirement in 1988. As the film notes, the fact that he remained in the forefront from the civil rights days of the 1960s to the battles of the World Trade Organization in 1999 is, in itself, exceptional.

Along with activists Daniel Berrigan, Noam Chomsky, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, and Daniel Ellsberg, Zinn was one of the leading anti-war figures of the Vietnam war era. He traveled to Hanoi with Daniel Berrigan to negotiate the release of three U.S. airmen in 1968 during the Tet offensive. He marched in Washington, D.C., and other venues, protesting Nixon’s war policies, and was arrested and beaten numerous times for his efforts. Director Ellis uses Zinn’s biographical narrative as a touchstone for depicting the movements and social unrest in which he was involved, interweaving clips of demonstrators being beaten and carried off in Selma in 1965 and antiwar protestors (including Zinn himself) being beaten and carried off in 1971-1972 with footage from Vietnam, Iraq, and other locations.

A particularly interesting segment of the film employs a clip of Zinn, Ellsberg and Berrigan being interviewed. Zinn related how a US administration official in Laos (Robert Sullivan) intervened in the peace movement’s 1968 efforts to escort the three freed U.S. airmen from Hanoi back to the USA, saying they needed to be taken via military aircraft for “quicker passage.” Zinn recalled commenting at the time that the peace movement, not the government, had been to Hanoi to get the men released, and that it might behoove the US government to grant them passage as Hanoi requested, or at least for LBJ to call them to the White House to discuss peace talks, since the US...


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pp. 90-92
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