Thoughts // IMMIGRATION IN FILM

Updated: Jun 21, 2018

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."



Immigration is the fabric of America. Despite which ideological viewpoint you hold, no matter if it's religious or historic, the very nature of the modern day United States evolved from a group immigrating to these shores (unless, of course, your families were natives and forced to be open to the idea of newcomers). But, currently, the immigration system is under scrutiny, mostly from an idea that is rich in negative stereotypes, oft-quoted myths, misleading facts, and fear-mongering. It's a funny conundrum for a country that celebrates Thanksgiving (a holiday recognizing the coming-together of people from different backgrounds) each and every year.


For every good and positive notion of welcoming people with open arms (whether it be from a religious point of view of unconditional love or one out of respect to the workmanship and cultures that give America its 'melting pot' identity), there is an abundance of opinions that creates an off-putting view of foreigners. America was designed as a place of freedom, a place to be desired, especially to escape persecution. There's no excuse that can justify a thought process that reduces other humans to a status of being less-than or not worthy of the same joys in life each of us takes for granted on a daily basis.


In recent years, the refugee crisis lit up as a newsworthy controversy, with mostly conservatives fearful that people seeking asylum in America due to their country's civil wars were only going to bring crime and terrorism to our shores. In 2018, that same argument is made in favor of the US's zero tolerance policy related to asylum seekers. The result is a fear among the most vulnerable of American minds that we are being invaded by aliens, plus an outcry from the open-minded that this and other inhumane practices need to stop. But, what's the solution? The answer should be easy. Humanity works best when viewed through the lens of love. For the Bible fans out there, the Good Book highlights this commandment over and over again, arguing that the fulfillment of the law is love and grace. Where are those qualities in current policies and ideas? What happened to empathy and compassion? For those who recognize the need for the separation of church and state in terms of laws and policies, look to other moments in history for guidance. Let's not repeat the past.


Swaying the minds of people is the main function of politicians, hoping to gain support, votes, and ultimately financial means from their constituents. People can change, and sometimes politicians will move from one party to the other. We can all grow and realize that maybe our points of view are skewed by doctrine, ideals, or other opinions that should be carefully dissected. It's okay to ask questions. It's okay to feel enlightened. It's okay to change your mind, even when the answer may be different than those around you. Adapting to a way of life is the meat and bones of our country. When our ancestors arrived here, whether that was a decade ago or a century ago or longer, they had to adapt to a new way of life, learning new laws and acceptable societal norms, even while holding on dearly to their own personal customs and routines. Look around you, at your neighborhood and city. It's made up of so many different ideas and traditions. That's what makes this land your land and my land.


There is a natural human drive for survival that creates this desire to want to protect one's home. As Americans, patriotism, itself a tool that can sometimes be used absentmindedly or purposefully out of hand, leads to a constant state of single-mindedness in terms of our country and our land. We love to hear the National Anthem. We love eating hot dogs on 4th of July. We love that feeling of togetherness after a national tragedy. Or, at least, we used to. That song now comes with its own new identity, rich in the search for equality on all fronts. The celebration of that Day of Independence lends itself to hypocrisy. What did we achieve in order to gain that independence? We're currently in the midst of some of the greatest national tragedies we've ever known, the greatest of which is our predilection for division.


Take a look at the films below that put immigration in the spotlight. Treated with humor or sympathy, or even graphic tortured details, the underlying truths present in these stories is the desire by the characters to find a new hope in a country that has promised this over and over again. In America you can do anything, be anything, say anything, think anything. Our country has made huge strides at becoming a welcoming place for free thinkers and lovers and dreamers. It'd be a shame to break down those advancements in such a short time due to ignorant and misguided frames of mind. Sadly, the pawns directly responsible for that destruction are you and me, a group of people so centered on ourselves that we forget what our country was founded on and why we're so blessed to be here. In many of the films below, when the immigrants are at their lowest points, mentally and emotionally, it isn't the compassion of their fellow Americans that brings them solace, it's in the arms of fellow seekers looking for acceptance and purpose. When did we get so cold?


These films deal with the American experience from the eyes of our ancestors and the people who want the same freedoms you and I have, an amazing gift I was blessed with by birth and would love for my neighbor to know. Though we've been given amazing films that have visually captivated us with the horrors of the Holocaust (Schindler's List) and slavery (12 Years a Slave, The Color Purple) over the years, let us not move towards another century of violations of human rights that one day deserve the film treatment. The world should be better now that we've seen the horrors of Hitler displayed in such beautiful anguish and detail, but wouldn't it have been even better if that film never had to be made to being with? That the horrific past that it presents was one that was just fictional?


Perhaps these movies present immigration in a different light than the process that exists today, but for the families and souls risking everything to come here, the same desires burn in their hearts: freedom and hope and love and community and grace and acceptance. We can do better than this, America. We can.


THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton

Academy Awards Won: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (De Niro), Art Direction, Original Score



Arguably better than its predecessor, this sequel (the first to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture) implores the history of immigration and how it impacts the America and the Americans we all have come to know today. Vito Corleone is a staunch believer in the power of America and how the dream available here is fortunate to those willing to put in the work, but he's also a victim of his own dreams, hoping to find a land of opportunity, but instead being left to his own devices by a cold shoulder from his unwelcoming new fellow citizens. The film gives an almost too-intricate image of the immigration process, complete with Ellis Island inspections and early-1920's New York. The entire Godfather series, in fact, gives a perfect view of the different kinds of Americans who exists: those lucky enough to be born here and those struggling to make it their home. It's a tragedy of sorts. Despite his hardships, Vito learns a valuable lesson. For some, success means monetary gain and excessive lifestyle. For Vito, success is in finally finding a home. Through all of the hell in which he found himself after arriving here, it was still American that allowed him to finally know what it felt like to be complete. It truly was a Land of Opportunity.


MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON (1984)

Directed by Paul Mazursky

Starring Robin Williams, Maria Conchita Alonso, Cleavant Derricks



Robin Williams became a master of comedic cinema in the 80's, a status that would culminate in some of the 90's most classic films. In Moscow on the Hudson, his wise-cracking Russian character, Vladimir Ivanoff, seeks asylum in a Bloomingdale's after visiting America as a member of a traveling Russian circus in the midst of the Cold War. In his home country, his daily life consisted of long lines for amenities and a constant struggle for survival. During much of the 20th century, especially during times of civil strife in Eastern countries, America was viewed as the ultimate paradise. Where the film works is in Ivanoff's attempts to acclimate to American cultural norms and society in general. Williams' abilities to mix slapstick with innocent charm have rarely been seen so effectively. Even with a new sense of purpose, Ivanoff must learn to deal with a new set of rules for survival. But, at least here, he's given the chance to enjoy that search for freedom, instead of living in a continual state of fear.


AN AMERICAN TAIL (1986)

Directed by Don Bluth

Starring Phillip Glasser, Christopher Plummer, Madeline Kahn



Another entry in the films about fleeing Russia for the great land of America, this animated flick is a frolicking adventure that stands as a steady commentary on what it means to be an immigrant. The cute Fievel is the runt of the Mousekewitz family, mice looking for freedom from their torn homeland of Russia. The ideas of America resound as rose-colored-glasses moxie, feeding into every aspect of the family's desires. The promise of "streets paved with cheese" is an easy reminder that America's greatest export may just be the PR we've invented to sell our greatest attributes, or at least make them seem like things you can only achieve within our pearly gates. The Mousekewitzes are Jewish, as is implied by their adorable surname, which means their persecution and struggles in Russia were even more heightened at the time. After docking on Ellis Island, Fievel gets separated from his family. Fievel must learn to navigate this new land on his own, managing to bypass the locals trying to exploit foreigners, plus the terrors of the neighborhood gangs, and the mentality that maybe America wasn't quite what it was painted to be. In the end, America isn't about the specific places or characteristics, the true ideals that exist within our fabric are those of family and acceptance, something Fievel learns once he finally reconnects with his own set of mice.


COMING TO AMERICA (1988)

Directed by John Landis

Starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Paul Bates



Eddie Murphy perhaps at his greatest is the main reason to see this 80's classic about the prince of a fictional African nation seeks a woman to be his bride. Instead of taking on the women of his home country, he comes to New York to find love. Though he lived a very affluent lifestyle in Africa, the new setting of Queens gives the film its most obvious chances at situational comedy. Murphy's Prince Akeem chooses to take the shady neighborhoods and less-than lifestyle in stride, over seeking out luxuries. He wants the full American experience, one that should be different than the life he left back home. Like other films or even real-life scenarios of immigrants coming to America, he returns home having learned what life is like when you have to work for success. It also gave him his first true glimpse at the disparages of the lower class, which in turn allows him to learn something about himself and his own way of thinking and appreciating what he has.


THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993)

Directed by Wayne Wang

Starring Ming-Na Wen, Kieu Chinh, Tamlyn Tomita



Though the current immigration crisis and its ensuing controversy is relegated to those coming from Latin American countries, people of all backgrounds have sought refuge in America over the years, whether it be for a job, for family, or for freedom. The Joy Luck Club shares the experiences of a group of Chinese women who've found a new home in San Francisco, and their adult daughters who were all born in the U.S. The tale is much more about mothers and daughters and the relationships that carry us on in our day-to-day lives than it is as a commentary on immigration. But, the heart of the story is directly derived from the mothers' goals to provide better lives for themselves and their future children, while also holding onto the traditions and ideals of their homeland. It's a beautifully filmed masterpiece that celebrates diversity through opening the doors to the new America, one that engages with the differences among us while melding together the pieces of society that are truly American.


IN AMERICA (2002)

Directed by Jim Sheridan

Starring Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou



In America is one of modern cinema's best kept secrets (despite being nominated for multiple Academy Awards). The film follows an Irish family's travels as they illegally emigrate into the country, finding shelter in a rundown building in Hell's Kitchen. The family deals with death and despair in the midst of looking for a new start in the land of opportunity. Filmed and set in an early 80's New York, it feels raw and real in its display of American life at the time, especially for those not fortunate enough to enjoy the riches of the upper class, a status that was just reaching its American peak. New York is a city of wonder, a true melting pot, and the film doesn't shy away from the excitement the city can bring, but it also gives a front-and-center approach to how hard it is for newcomers in this country. But, it isn't the Americans who give this family their most-beloved moments. In fact, it's another immigrant who lives next door who shows them grace, mercy, and love. Released shortly after 9/11, it was a stark contrast to the America we all knew in those months following the attacks, a time when we seemed most aligned in compassion and love. But, with the attacks grew a new insurgent of fear and hate for those different than us.


MARIA FULL OF GRACE (2004)

Directed by Joshua Marston

Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Yenny Paola Vega, Jaime Osorio Gomez



For some, coming to America isn't as easy as taking a boat ride to an island off of New York or waiting through customs. For some, the desire to find asylum in the Land fo the Free means taking irrational measures to get here. Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as Maria, a teenage girl who accepts an offer to serve as a drug mule as a last resort. The task was risky, involving her swallowing drug-filled pellets and flying to New York. The film delves into what it's like to somewhat achieve your freedom, but then find yourself lost and alone in a huge new world. It also sheds light on the conditions of countries unlike America. Though the means for survival may exist, access to them is limited or non-existent. There is an argument to made around her choice to break the law in coming to America illegally with drugs, but the truth of the story is in how extreme some people will take their efforts to get out of the shambles of their past in search of a promising future in a place that says it will accept them as their won.


BROOKLYN (2015)

Directed by John Crowley

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson



Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis, an Irish lass looking for a new purpose when she decides to move, alone, to New York in the early 1950's. After arriving, she almost immediately feels homesick, missing the routine and familiarity of home and the fear of being alone in this new place. She finally lets up once she meets Tony, a New Yorker who takes her under his wing (and with whom builds a budding romance). She works during the day and explores the city at night, gaining a new identity of independence and confidence. Once she returns to Ireland, this newfound sense of self allows her to properly respect this place that she's always known as home. The film gives a good diagram of what gives us our identity. In most cases, it isn't a place, but a state of mind. The freeing ideals of America gave her the sense to be herself and achieve a life that means something more than the routine.

© 2018 by Scottie Knollin.

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