Narrator Madigan sees modern relevance in message of Terre Haute icon Eugene Debs

By Mark Bennett

Amy Madigan fought injustice in a memorable scene from “Field of Dreams.”

Her character in that classic 1989 movie, farmer’s wife Annie Kinsella, spoke up to oppose the banning of a book at a local high school. When the PTA leader, Beulah, ridicules Annie’s husband, Ray, for building a baseball diamond in the middle of his Iowa cornfields and their exchange heats up. “At least he is not a book burner, you Nazi cow,” Annie responds.

Obviously agitated, Annie continues, asking the packed house for a show of hands, saying, “Who’s wants to burn books? Who wants to spit on the Constitution of the United States of America, anybody?”

Twenty-eight years later, Madigan serves as narrator of a new documentary on a Terre Haute native who spent his life battling social injustice. The subject of “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Debs” holds relevance today. So does that hilarious, but meaningful moment in “Field of Dreams.”

“The town hall speech is what is so funny, but [also] terribly important,” Madigan said in an email interview last month from London, where she’s performing in a musical with her husband, actor Ed Harris. “[It’s] free speech, not hate speech, not fake news, but what we are as a country and a people.”

‘American Socialist’

Free speech, oppression, justice and the American dream grab the spotlight in “American Socialist,” as does Terre Haute. The film debuts Tuesday at the Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York City. San Diego filmmaker Yale Strom hopes to stage screenings in Terre Haute in late summer or fall.

Strom, also a musician and composer of klezmer and Yiddish songs, got inspired to tell Debs’ story in film a decade ago. Barack Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois, was running for president. Opposition mounted quickly. Among the “epithets being thrown his way by some Republicans and arch-conservatives was that Obama was a socialist,” Strom recalled. The accusers didn’t understand the term, he said.

Strom determined to make the film, and ramped up the project in 2011, trekking to Terre Haute to research Debs’ roots. Six years later, “American Socialist” will premiere Tuesday at the Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York City.

Equality for women

Debs championed workers’ rights (many of whom were immigrants in the late 19th century and early 1900s), equality for women and minorities, Social Security for seniors, and the 40-hour work week long before they became realities. Viewers of the film may see Debs differently, not as a radical agitator but perhaps as a principled guy who kept a portrait of Jesus on the wall of his cell in the Atlanta federal prison.

“They’re not crazy, wild ideas from the former Soviet Union. They have nothing to do with the former Soviet Union,” Strom said by phone from San Diego. “His followers were primarily working class and Christians, and many were Jews, too.” Some were the great-grandparents of present-day Republicans in places like Oklahoma, he added.

Strom’s wife, Elizabeth Schwartz, co-wrote the film’s script, sings “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” in its soundtrack and serves as executive producer. Strom wanted a female narrator, and Schwartz recommended Madigan, who first read the script, then accepted. They got an Academy Award nominated actress who grew up in 1950s Chicago, the daughter of a longtime newsman who covered the McCarthy hearings in Washington, D.C. “He was called a ‘dirty Catholic,’” Madigan recalled.

“I grew up with news and opinion, right on the south side of Chicago,” she continued. “You either embrace this, or you don’t.”

Timeless documentary

Madigan sees a timeliness to the documentary. The 2016 presidential campaign vaulted billionaire Donald Trump into the White House and made a household name of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who lost in the primaries to Hillary Clinton. Sanders, a Vermont senator who favors democratic socialism, illuminated the reality that America’s wealthiest 1 percent has reaped more than half of new income since the recession began in 2009.

In Debs’ era, the top two percent of the U.S. population owned 60 percent of its wealth. Byproducts of that inequality — suppressed wages and the working poor becoming entrenched in a cycle of poverty — became themes for Debs, who ran for president atop the Socialist Party ticket in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920.

“The idea of a person making a living wage is so in the radar, then and now,” Madigan said. “[Debs] fought for everyone being able to have dignity and for families. And the ironic thing is, that is where we are right now.”

Indeed, Sanders won Indiana’s Democratic presidential primary last year and carried Vigo County, nearly outpolling Trump’s Republican votes. “Bernie Sanders inspired millions. Bernie Sanders inspired a generation,” Strom said. “But who inspired Bernie? Eugene Victor Debs.”

The economy in Debs’ home community has changed since his lifetime, from 1855 to 1926. Coal mining, farming, distilleries and breweries, and slaughterhouses provided most of the jobs then. Today, health care facilities, schools and colleges, trade unions and a select manufacturers employ most Terre Hauteans. Still, per capita wages here lag the state’s, and the state’s lag the nation’s.

City molded Debs

Terre Haute shaped Debs, who went to work as a railroad fireman as a teenager, and later served as city clerk and state representative. As an elderly man, he was imprisoned for criticizing the power holders who were sending young Americans into World War I. President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence in 1921. Debs walked out of Atlanta’s federal prison on Christmas Day. Incredibly, the warden allowed the 2,300 inmates out of their cells to bid farewell to Debs, who’d won over the prisoners and staff alike.

As they cheered, Debs turned around on a sidewalk and raised his hat in appreciation.

In the same way, the film may win over some folks with unfavorable perceptions of Debs. They’ll learn little-known elements of his family life, the fact that Helen Keller and Carl Sandburg called him a friend, and that Debs traveled hundreds of miles to small American towns and remote rural areas in support of working people.

A teachable moment, a century later.

Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.