The Serious Movie Tradition We Should Follow On Thanksgiving

Harvest of Shame
CBS News
By  · Published on November 25th, 2015

We didn’t always go to the movies on Thanksgiving. It was a holiday to spend with your family, and the bonding festivities were to last the whole day through. For better or worse. Now we escape our family, or at least their objectionable conversation topics, by sitting in a theater, where no one can talk politics or put down each other’s life choices, and staring at pretty much anything available on the big screen for a couple of hours.

But Thanksgiving shouldn’t be a holiday for escapism. Leave that fluff for Christmas. The whole point of the observance of Thanksgiving is to express gratitude for our blessings – or, for the less-religious, simply anything we hold dear in our lives. It’s about looking at our real present situation and acknowledging what we do have, not what we wish for. And it’s a day to recognize that we could all be less fortunate.

Fifty-five years ago today, CBS aired one of the most famously impactful documentaries of all time, Harvest of Shame. The nearly hour-long film was made by Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly, best known now as the guys portrayed by David Straithairn and George Clooney in Good Night, and Good Luck, and it exposes the plight and poverty of migrant workers of the time.

It was an eye-opening report for Americans, who were shocked to see conditions that seemed to be recorded during the Great Depression, actually filmed in the present age of general prosperity in the United States. Millions tuned in because there weren’t many other options back then. News and other serious nonfiction programs could reach and influence a lot more people.

Harvest of Shame was broadcast the day after Thanksgiving, a time we now call Black Friday and associate with shopping. That year in particular it was more a day to consider an important issue relevant to the spirit of the holiday. As producer David Lowe later admitted, the idea was to show the more fortunate Americans where much of their Thanksgiving dinner came from. It worked.

Well, it didn’t change the world, but it was something. Poverty and poor conditions for migrant workers never went away, of course, though some improvements were made by Congress, thanks to the documentary’s help in lighting a fire under some existing legislation. Not everyone appreciated the editorializing “news” of Harvest of Shame, and other critics have denied it had any worthwhile impact at all. That it could raise awareness and provoke a conversation in so many homes across the country, however, is still remarkable compared to what’s possible now.

No network is going to capture such a large audience with a single documentary these days, but it’d be great if Americans could take it upon themselves to honor the legacy of Harvest of Shame and devote their post-thanks-giving with some serious recognition and contemplation about those outside their sphere of personal appreciation. We can still have a tradition of going to the movies, but make it a nonfiction feature.

It doesn’t have to be something advocating social change, like the 1960 doc, or even an issue film at all. It doesn’t have to shame you about enjoying a feast prepared by the poor and misfortunate. Just watching something involving real people who aren’t part of your family is enough of a way to follow the internal gratitude with external respect. Besides, things may already be heated enough regarding any number of issues in your house during the holiday, and certain films watched together might cause an all-out war between relatives.

But how much more fun would it be to get the whole clan out to see something like the new Michael Moore movie, Where to Invade Next, and have a big discussion afterward, even if it doesn’t result in harmonious agreement? (Unfortunately, that specific example is currently playing festivals but isn’t officially out for a few more weeks.) Or have everyone sit in front of the TV to stream one of the great nonfiction films on Netflix, such as the newly added Puerto Rican transgender doc Mala Mala and the Ukrainian revolution doc Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. Help expose your mom and your uncle, et al, to different cultures and world events.

Or just learn something together. Watch the holiday-appropriate Reel Injun, about the depiction of Native Americans in cinema. Meet all sorts of interesting people, like stand-up comedian Barry Crimmins, the subject of Bobcat Goldthwait’s funny and sad film Call Me Lucky, and the long-sheltered movie-obsessed brothers of The Wolfpack.

Thanksgiving is already a time for getting real, a time for facing people you don’t normally see (and maybe like it that way), for possibly confronting things that are hard to come to grips with. It’s the perfect time for watching something real, something with people you don’t normally think about (and maybe like it that way), something that confronts difficult topics and issues.

Who’s with me for putting off the uplifting sports drama and depressing dystopian blockbuster and even the feature reenactment of a true story in order to start a tradition of watching documentaries on or after Thanksgiving? Feed your mind in addition to stuffing your belly.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.