Harvest of Shame

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 28, 2015

This 1960 television documentary on the plight of migrant agricultural workers on the American eastern seaboard is an exemplary piece of investigative reporting. The justifiably celebrated Ed Murrow—implacable, magisterial, smoking like a chimney—is our host and guide, but it’s important to remember that this milestone of broadcast journalism is a collective effort. It organizes the contributions of that collective into a clear and thorough exposition of a very serious problem.

In doing this so convincingly, so resoundingly, Harvest of Shame actually reminded me of Oliver Twist (and more effectively, Little Dorrit), or Black Beauty. Dickens was concerned with the abuses of the workhouse system, and Anna Sewell with animal (and workers’) rights. Harvest of Shame was made to expose and also seek remedy for a thorough, systemic injustice, which is that the world’s best-fed nation allowed the throngs that harvested its food to live in direst poverty. The similarity between these works is that their witnesses are so vivid, their accusations so deep and fierce, that they have passed or threaten to pass out of the discourse of activism and advocacy, right into the realms of mythology.

That’s as it should be, but there’s a problem attached. Murrow’s mythological narrative is still a reflection of real lives, and real jeopardy. It goes without saying—let’s say it though—that these problems, allowing for changing particulars, have only increased in the interim. Oliver’s orphanage is a thing of the past, but the privation of today’s working poor still requires our ministration. More, it requires legislation, constantly renewed and refined and even, often replaced. Which is where we butt up against another point of difficult interest.

From a certain perspective, Harvest of Shame reads as an electrifying dramatization of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not to mention of Christ’s extensive teachings about, constant concern for, the poor. It’s like the still small voice, with the wind and the earthquake and the fire (I Kings, 19) thrown in. So powerful!

There’s another perspective though. Why is it then that when we watch the film in class, there are always a number of nice young people who think it’s a Communist tract? It might just be me, what with my own ideological preferences and leanings, but it sure seems a sad day when you can reduce all of this righteousness to objectionable ideology, and then dismiss it as such. Trickling down is so much easier, so much less confrontational. And it requires so much less commitment, or consecration!

We’ve all got our blinders, don’t we? Our comforting, comfortable platitudes. Political partisanship can be that, writ large. And there are benefits! But this is Charles Sheldon (1896) territory here, the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. This is Matthew, 25: 31-46. C’mon, kids. Let’s listen to the man with the cigarette …