Tuesday, June 2, 2015
In 1960, Fred W. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow teamed up to make Harvest of Shame. The film was Murrow's last television documentary before he left CBS to head up John F. Kennedy's United States Information Agency and the Voice of America. Ironically, as a U.S.I.A bureaucrat, Murrow tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress a B.B.C. broadcast of Harvest of Shame.
Harvest of Shame documented the living conditions of American migrant farm workers, and recorded the prevailing attitude of big business, lobbiests and government officials toward the farm workers and their living conditions.
Edward R. Murrow has had many imitators, but none of them has managed to channel Murrow's combination of serious journalism and real concern for people who were unable to manage in any way the oppressive political and economic culture that impinged on their lives.
Harvest of Shame is one of television's most respected documentaries, not because it was especially effective, but because of its intention and style.
Harvest of Shame originally aired just after Thanksgiving Day in November 1960. A follow-up report by CBS last year -- a 5 minute segment, compared to the 50 minutes of the original -- found that the migrants' pauper wages were a little better and the workers were mostly poor Hispanics now instead of poor blacks and whites, but the working conditions and daily lives of migrant farm workers have not much changed.
Harvest of Shame gave a face to the faceless, advocated for the powerless, and created a lasting example of how television documentaries -- and journalism in general -- can engage important issues without bias or polemics, with compassion instead of passion, and with respect for its subjects.
The shots of workers, voicing their frustration about trying to make a living at the bottom of the American economy, and the shots of a corporate lobbiest, reducing and explaining away the tragedy of people permanently abandoned to poverty, could, in these times of massive, permanent unemployment and under-employment -- especially of the undereducated and people over 50 -- be filmed today. We only lack the film makers, journalists, and the subjects who -- like the migrant farm workers of the 60's -- convincingly demonstrate the flaws in American society, the disjunction between our basic values and the way we allow some of our fellow Americans to live.
Harvest of Shame, for the most part, let's the workers and bureaucrats speak for themselves, admittedly in the context of Murrow's narration. But the film manages to balance Murrow's narration with the true faces and voices of the workers, captured by David Lowe, in a way that never overpowers the workers and their story. Typically, Murrow closed the show with a comment that conveys his belief that words — and reason — matter, that it is possible to talk about occasions for anger, without histrionics and without acting anger out.
Are there real barriers to producing documentaries like Harvest of Shame these days? In many ways, they should be easier to do. The cost of video equipment is more affordable than it's ever been, and venues like YouTube let documentary film makers "self publish." The problem, if there is one, lies in finding subjects.
Harvest of Shame can be purchased on DVD at Amazon, or, with a leading commercial, be viewed for free at YouTube or CBS News.