Several years ago, I co-hosted a Seinfeld versus The Office movie night, and we tried to add a little original flare by formally rating episodes in an Excel spreadsheet, busting out the George Foreman Grill, and attempting to set a calculator in Jello. For a somewhat amateur party planner like myself, I felt this was a new high.
However, I now realize I had overlooked the attraction of a far simpler, far more meaningful angle: the hot-take documentary movie night – something I’ve begun referring to as “spicy movie night.” Simply put, hosting a documentary movie night allows you to do multiple things at once. It makes room for new and deeper friendships, gives you the opportunity to learn and draw attention to issues you care about, and can contribute to creating a culture of free speech, all at the same time.
As a young girl, I quickly learned the value of free inquiry through the example of my dad, who didn’t shy away from presenting me with viewpoints a little outside the norm. These conversations with my dad did more than train my mind, they also created a special bond, as he became the person I could count on to have a unique point of view and to listen to, and meaningfully challenge, my thoughts and questions. It’s not rocket science that we tend to bond with people we trust and feel we can share with, sometimes even where there may not be complete and total agreement. But sadly, as a lawyer working for a free speech organization, I am reminded daily that many Americans feel limited in what they can discuss for fear of being misunderstood, antagonized, and possibly punished.
As a result, you might underestimate how many of your friends are looking for an opportunity to openly hash out their thoughts and make meaningful connections in this way. Identifying the proper time or confidante might prove a challenge for some. Not everyone feels comfortable hijacking pleasant dinner party conversation. Luckily, this is not a concern when hosting a “spicy movie night”; everyone comes with the expectation that guests will be chatting about a potentially controversial topic among friends in a relaxed atmosphere.
It’s an added bonus that hosting a movie night is one of the simplest activities to initiate. My decision to screen my first political documentary was extremely impromptu – I simply texted friends what I wanted to watch that night, and surprisingly, the suggestion was enough to garner a decent sized crew, including not one but two people I didn’t know. Because of the nature of the film, the discussion following didn’t require prompting, and conversation among friends and those who were previously strangers flowed easily.
As I continued throwing movie nights, the size of our group grew, friends brought friends, roommates brought friends, and as host, I had the opportunity to connect and reconnect with people from different circles without even leaving my house. Unlike movie nights of years past, it quickly became common for friends to ask what we were going to watch next.
But throwing a “spicy movie night” is an opportunity for more than just a good time. As host, you get to choose documentaries that highlight an angle or subject matter you think is important to consider. The way I see it, I’m able to make a significantly more comprehensive case for things I care about by merely pressing “play,” which also keeps me feeling polite and prevents me from steamrolling my friends with impassioned half-baked thoughts over lunch – the latter being a strategy Dale Carnegie, the OG expert on How to Win Friends and Influence People, likely would not encourage.
When guests get talking, everyone is given the opportunity to think beyond their initial reactions by listening to each other and sharpening their own persuasive skills.
The use of documentaries can be an especially effective means of persuasion. It’s documentaries that can present an issue in an entertaining and compelling way that allows multiple viewers to stay engaged for a prolonged amount of time. I think showing a culturally controversial documentary that encourages dialogue from the viewer is an intellectual exercise that goes a step further. When guests get talking, everyone is given the opportunity to think beyond their initial reactions by listening to each other and sharpening their own persuasive skills.
Creating a Free Speech Culture
And still, the documentary movie nights’ purpose goes even further by helping to create a culture of free speech. While the legal system and all its moving parts can do its best to safeguard the formal protections our Constitution guarantees, it’s the creation of a free speech culture by individuals that helps us recognize and reap the benefit of viewpoint diversity. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty highlights the philosopher’s appreciation for freedom of speech, stating: “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race … If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
Even with full free speech protections, we can choose to ignore or antagonize a dissenting opinion without thinking about how it might strengthen or change our own ideas. We can still openly shame people who espouse beliefs we don’t like, discouraging others from sharing their questions and insights. But hosting “spicy movie night,” at the very least, nudges things in the opposite direction. It helps break the ice in asking authentic questions and to recognize the utility of understanding an opposing view in real time.
Quick Tips for the Perfect Spicy Movie Night
Obviously, every movie night needs a few snacks. Not only do people like snacks, want snacks, and expect snacks at a good movie night, but having a tasty treat available contributes to the relaxed, welcoming atmosphere, which is all the more important when trying to make difficult topics “digestible” and enjoyable (no pun intended). If you don’t have time to make something, grab some popcorn. For others, you might not want to miss this great opportunity to show off your cooking or baking skills. Maybe even try to find a signature hors d’oeuvre that guests look forward to at future gatherings. I stole a simple brie bite recipe from one of my aunts that always seems to be a crowd-pleaser.
What To Show
As far as documentary selection goes, it can be anything interesting, but the fun is in something somewhat controversial because that’s what seems to enhance that bonded feeling between guests and sparks enough intrigue to draw attendance. Think ahead about how your movie selection might impact your unique circle of friends. If a political documentary cuts too harsh a line, perhaps choose a topic where there is more overlap, like free speech or hormonal birth control. There are plenty of free movie options, but if you choose something no one else wants to pay for, or is a part of a subscription they don’t have access to, it might be another draw.
Who To Invite
Consider your goals and what kind of conversation you hope to facilitate as you reach out to friends. Do you want things to get a little wild and passionate? Do you want as many different viewpoints as possible? Or do you want to further push the leanings of a select group of friends and discuss the importance of subtle nuances of a specific topic?
Be Prepared To Steer the Conversation If Necessary
Lastly, although the steps above help ensure a pleasant and agreeable experience, you should go in mentally prepared to steer conversation if it becomes necessary. Remember that much of the point is hearing different points of view, but if someone is struggling to be heard or someone is taking the conversation in a totally different direction, remember that you are the hostess and the woman of the house. Of course, if that’s not your forte, it’s possible to delegate that role to someone else privately ahead of time.
If you’re looking for new ways to connect with your friends, to actually push the needle on topics you care about in a winsome way, to shake the tension off discussing important subjects, and want to do something new and fun, spice up your life with a documentary movie night!
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