Based upon Juan Gonzalez’s book of the same name, Harvest of Empire is a fairly straightforward introduction to the sundry and incomprehensibly cruel things Americans have done/are doing to people South of our border. For those relatively unfamiliar with the United States’ less than stellar track record in dealing with the indigenous populations of its various colonial endeavors, this film will most assuredly prove unsettling. The sadistic and needless torture and slaughter of native populations in North and Central America throughout the years by the U.S. is baffling insofar as, at least in retrospect, it seems so pointless and mean.
This legacy of brutality poses a serious problem for people who are decidedly binary in their patriotic attitudes — e.g. some folks like America so damn much that, for them, it simply must be virtuous (in a “love it or leave it” kind of way). If the country they love so well were to be at times evil, then their filial devotion would somehow be cheapened. This audience, blinded to the reality of the countless number of black marks on their beloved homeland, seems to be the filmmakers’ primary concern.
Folks more well-versed in the truly inhuman (though inventive) ways the United States has treated the native inhabitants of its former colonies might be left feeling a little let down. What makes this film decent as an introduction is also what precludes it from any really meaningful examination of the problems posed by illegal immigration: it offers brief, capsule reviews of the terror wrought by the U.S. in several different countries. Undeniably sensational facts bereft of context will always raise eyebrows, and Harvest of Empire is no exception. We’re given snippets of shameful things the U.S.A. has done in North and Central American nations without being provided the necessary context that would allow for a critical take on what happened beyond, oh say, American is purely, cartoonishly evil.
The filmmakers’ (and, by proxy, Gonzalez’s) stated purpose is to give some background info as to why North and Central American immigrants continue to flock to the U.S. The basic framework of their argument is that the amount of crippling things we’ve done to various Southern nations has made life in those nations so grueling and hopeless that the only recourse for their people is to journey north, to the homeland of their former Colonial masters. The true “harvest” of the American empire has been immigrants. By messing around in the affairs of our Southern neighbors, we’ve essentially robbed them of the resources and conditions that can sustain a growing population. In turn, these growing populations are heading to where their stolen resources have ended up — namely, the U.S. of A. It’s an interesting conjecture, but one that requires a bit more nuance than is possible to convey in an hour and change in a documentary.
Harvest of Empire is neither a polemic nor a genuine work of investigative journalism. Not content to be either, it treads a line between the two, a course of action which inevitably dilutes the import of its message. This passionate film does not have the breadth to convincingly espouse its interpretation of the current turmoil related to immigration in the United States, and this is a shame, as it’s a truly fascinating hypothesis. Ideally, this work would have spanned several hour-long installments, which I feel strongly would have lent more credibility to its premise. As it is, though, it remains a valiant attempt at making clear the bogglingly tangled web of migrant issues that face this nation.