During the Great Depression, Americans endured a crisis not just of economy, but identity, and millions of unemployed men and women looked to the government for a life raft. Hundreds of thousands found jobs with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), most wielding picks and shovels to build roads and schools. For a smaller cadre, however, the tools were little more than a pen, paper and the spirit of investigation. The Writers Project, one of four arts programs administered under the WPA, fed thousands of unemployed and “would-be” writers assigned to the documenting of America via guidebooks and interviews. With the Writers' Project, the government pitted young, untested talents against the problems faced by everyday Americans like themselves and their interviewees. From that experience, some of America’s great writers found their own voices.
Soul of a People looks at the deeply personal stories behind the familiar images of the Great Depression and shows the vitality of a democracy built on a diverse citizenry. The film includes interviews with Writers' Project alumni, Studs Terkel and Stetson Kennedy, author David Bradley and American historian Douglas Brinkley, among others. Narrated by acclaimed actress Patricia Clarkson, the film also features the voices of Academy Award-winning actor JK Simmons and renowned authors Amy Bloom, Jonathan Holloway, Elmer Kelton, Richard Ford, James McBride and Reynolds Price.
Major funding for Soul of a People was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Network, and the state humanities councils of Illinois, Nebraska, Idaho, Maryland, Texas and Wisconsin. Produced in association with the Library of Congress, the documentary is still broadcast regularly on the Smithsonian Channel. A companion book, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, by co-producer and co-writer David Taylor has been published by Wiley and Sons.
In partnership with the American Library Association, and funded by the NEH, Soul of a People became the centerpiece of a special library initiative that celebrated the 75th anniversary of the New Deal. The film was screened in over 35 select libraries and 80 museums across the country, accompanied by talkbacks with local authors and scholars, receptions featuring Depression-era food and costumes, antique car shows, and other period-related activities.