While many websites are ranking the best Thanksgiving movies, I’m not seeing any documentaries mentioned alongside popular fiction fare like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and The Ice Storm. But just as there are docs fitting any holiday, there are indeed plenty of docs fitting turkey day. I list ten below and would love to hear of any I’ve missed.
Capturing the Friedmans - It was the day before Thanksgiving in 1987 that Arnold and Jesse Friedman were arrested on charges related to child pornography and sexual abuse. Even without the direct holiday connection, this is a perfect film for the holiday. Nobody can complain about their own dysfunctional family after watching this.
American Movie - Thanksgiving 1996 comes along during this film about amateur filmmaker Mark Borchardt and his production on the horror film Coven. And of course there’s another dysfunctional family involved here, as well. Who else gives their uncle a special turkey day bath?
Grey Gardens - One more family to make you better appreciate your own, the two Beales of Grey Gardens are a mother-daughter duo like none known before or since (no matter how many docs try to be labeled a new Grey Gardens). But what do Big Edie and Little Edie have to do with Thanksgiving? Well, the film was watched on a Thanksgiving episode of Gilmore Girls, and even though the show’s mother-daughter duo viewed the doc on the eve of Thanksgiving, I still think it’s enough to spawn a holiday tradition.
The Last Waltz - Considered by many to be the greatest concert film ever produced, Martin Scorsese’s film captures the final concert of The Band, which occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. To remind us, there’s a bit at the beginning showing the concertgoers partaking in a pre-show turkey dinner. Buy it.
Sing Sing Thanksgiving - In this other Thanksgiving-set concert film, Joan Baez, B.B. King and others perform at Sing Sing Prison in 1972 for a special holiday show. If you want to see it, look for the retitled DVDs Sing Sing Prison Concert and B.B. King and Joan Baez in concert at Sing Sing Prison in 1972.
Harvest of Shame - Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 documentary originally aired as an episode of CBS Reports on the day after Thanksgiving, for good reason. The film is about poor migrant workers in America with scenes you’d have thought were filmed during the Great Depression if you didn’t know better. Producer David Lowe told Time magazine, “We felt that by scheduling the program the day after Thanksgiving, we could stress the fact that much of the food cooked for Thanksgiving throughout the country was picked by migratory workers. We hoped that the pictures of how these people live and work would shock the consciousness of the nation.” Does it still matter today? Perhaps not as much, but watching the hour-long doc on Thanksgiving should still have you putting your meal and your life in perspective against those less fortunate. Watch the whole film below:
King Corn - Almost everything you eat on Thanksgiving is made from corn. In a way, this is because the Native Americans gave the world maize, and we honor the original feast with much of the items served then. But it’s different today, because as we learn from this documentary, government subsidies have made it so corn and its byproducts are found in nearly all our foods and beverages. Other docs like Food, Inc. and The Future of Food also focus somewhat on the corn business.
Forks Over Knives - This recent film, which promotes veganism, has little to do directly with the holiday, and it might just be the worst thing to watch after becoming engorged with meat and dairy products (you might have a heart attack just thinking of how you might have a heart attack). I’m featuring it because the doc’s website recently posted a mini cookbook titled “Forks Over Knives: Recipes for a Plant-Based Thanksgiving with the Plant-Based Dietitian, Julieanna Hever.” For those who eat the stuffed squash, tempeh and chowder dishes found there, watching the doc after dinner won’t be so frightening.
Super Size Me - Pretty much everything at McDonalds also originates with corn, but that’s not the reason this doc is on the list. Did you know Morgan Spurlock got the idea for the film on Thanksgiving Day in 2002? He was laying on the couch at his mother’s house, in a “tryptophane haze,” when he saw a news story on a lawsuit against the fast food chain involving plaintiffs accusing the restaurant of making them obese. He quickly called his DP, Scott Ambrozy, told him his idea, and the rest is history. Hopefully after you’ve eaten too much turkey you don’t get nauseous watching Spurlock eat and eat and eat.
What Would Jesus Buy? - Normally this Spurlock-produced doc would be the film to watch the day after Thanksgiving, on Black Friday, but this year many stores are opening on the actual holiday to get the shoppers in early. The topic is the commercialization of Christmas and the main subject is “Reverend Billy,” an activist who preaches anti-materialism with his Church of Stop Shopping choir. After eating dinner you can go out to Wal-Mart and get some stupid gadgets or you can watch this doc and continue being thankful for what you already have.
If you want more docs to watch on Thanksgiving, also check out my list of 25 Real Families to Spend Thanksgiving With.
And for another crop, check out Basil Tsiokos’s curated list of Docs to Feast on this Thanksgiving Weekend at Indiewire.
*And of course we hope you’ll watch the documentaries programmed today on Documentary Channel. If you don’t get the channel, tell your cable provider to carry it!