Coming to America: 19 movies about U.S. immigration

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Coming to America: 19 movies about U.S. immigration

Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Graphic: Nick Wanserski

The recent executive order prohibiting entry into the United States for immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries has been condemned by thousands of detractors, from Dick Cheney to the pope. Of the mountain of reasons against this ban, many point to the slate of principles this country—a nation of immigrants—is based on. Discussion of the current political hellscape is prevalent elsewhere (practically everywhere) on the internet right now. Here at The A.V. Club, we thought it was a good time to revisit some of the movies that have brought the American immigrant experience to the big screen, as the rich history of these ethnic groups has offered inspiration for films from The Godfather Part II to An American Tail. Just like in real life, not all of these stories end happily, but they all show how much immigration is vital to the American canon, and what the promise of the erstwhile land of opportunity has represented around the world.

1. I Remember Mama (1948)

The early 20th-century play I Remember Mama was a big hit, likely because it was a story familiar to many Americans: the tale of a family of immigrants around the turn of the century. Dreaming of a land of milk and honey, the Hansens instead find a lean existence in their new country; in fact, the play was based on a novel called Mama’s Bank Account, as the matriarch watches every penny to ensure the survival of her family. As the characters soon find new opportunities in America, they learn that objects mean a lot less than what their family has to offer. To play the title role, the usually glamorous Irene Dunne donned a Norwegian accent, various aprons, and a braid wrapped around her head that might as well have been a halo. Her transformation won her an Oscar nomination, along with three other members of the cast, including a young Barbara Bel Geddes as the narrator, Katrin. Mama spurred a long-running CBS sitcom and remains the standard for sweetly idealized immigrant family stories, at a distance from less-sentimental takes at the time, like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. [Gwen Ihnat]

2. Gangs Of New York (2002)

A Martin Scorsese movie inspired by a 1927 nonfiction book of the same name, Gangs Of New York offers an America where citizens who aren’t Dutch, English, or native born are considered less than. The film—which has excellent performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis, as well as an ill-advised romantic subplot—tells the story of the ethnocentric gangs circling New York City’s Five Points neighborhood around the Civil War, including the self-explanatory Natives, headed by Day-Lewis’ Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, and the Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant conglomerate headed by DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon. While Vallon’s Irish contingent is slowly becoming the dominant population in the neighborhood, The Butcher’s Natives hang on firmly, thoroughly convinced of their racial and national superiority. The film is as brutal as it is long and culminates in a knock-down, drag-out knife fight between the native born and the Irish, one that should serve as a reminder of the old adage that, especially when you’re talking about global identity politics, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind—or dead in the street, as it were. [Marah Eakin]

3. Avalon (1990)

The most personal of Barry Levinson’s nostalgic, semi-autobiographical “Baltimore” films, Avalon draws its inspiration from the director’s own background as the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. There are certainly details specific to that experience: the culture clash between Yiddish-speaking elders and a baffled second generation; the lingering shadow of the Holocaust; the family’s assimilation through embracing holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth Of July, and even “Americanizing” their names. But its overarching story is a more universal one. As the Krichinsky family puts its roots down in the Promised Land—chasing upward mobility and all the suburban sprawl and TV sets that come with it—the ties that bind begin to loosen, and those links to its past fade into a grandfather’s wistful muttering of an old world no one else hastens to remember. Avalon is often a mournful film, lamenting the many ways in which the modern family has been broken and divided by ambition and distraction. Yet it’s also a moving reminder that we all come from somewhere else and that cutting ourselves off from that heritage only leads to loneliness. [Sean O’Neal]

4. Moscow On The Hudson (1984)

There were fewer more delightful topics for pop culture during the Cold War than depicting America as paradise for anyone willing to work for it in comparison to the perpetual winter of brutalist Soviet Russia. Vladimir Ivanoff (Robin Williams) must suffer the indignities of the crumbling late Soviet era: waiting in long lines for toilet paper and shoes, then having to relinquish the shoes as a bribe in order to keep his job as a saxophone player for the Russian Circus. It’s no surprise then when the circus travels to perform in America that Vladimir chooses Bloomingdale’s—a shining house of capitalism—as his impromptu embassy in which to defect and escape his KGB handlers. Most of the movie is a comedy of errors, depicting the daily trials of an uncertain, nonfluent newcomer filtered through William’s nervous, goofball sensibility, all malapropisms and wild gestures. In another prominently branded set piece, Vladimir takes a job working behind the counter of McDonald’s. As both a mild critique and celebration of the franchise’s ubiquitous message, Vladimir is stuck in a broken loop of adding “Mc” as a prefix to every word he pronounces. He’s traded Russia’s oppressive culture for America’s. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. [Nick Wanserski]

5. The Immigrant (2014)

The first film to actually shoot on Ellis Island, James Gray’s epic The Immigrant is a profound American narrative that doesn’t shy away from the hard realities of poor 1920s emigres. Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) arrives at the island processing center having been flagged as a woman of questionable morals, and ends up seeking the aid of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who emcees a dingy burlesque revue and pimps out the girls after hours. But rather than a simplistic tale of the false promise of America and stock characters of the long-suffering woman and her roguish exploiter, the movie looks with empathy upon all these hardscrabble lives. Bruno is sad and conflicted, and Ewa finds pride in unlikely places. Her Polish heritage, his disavowed Judaism, and the traditions and expectations of immigrant neighborhoods within New York City all play integral roles in creating a wholly realistic and rich exploration of the era and its denizens. These are people who were forced to live in the cracks of society, who came to this country (or were the first generation born within its borders) and struggled against their marginalization and exploitation, even as they make hard choices and carve out ways to psychologically deal with their lot in life. It’s heartbreaking and compelling, but most importantly, deeply humanistic—life in all its messy ambiguities, and a period piece that never feels anything but thrillingly alive and authentic. [Alex McCown-Levy]

6. Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Director Michael Cimino pulled off the near-impossible feat of squandering all the goodwill he gained with 1979’s Oscar champion The Deer Hunter by dropping a bomb for the ages. Heaven’s Gate offers a fictionalized version of a little-known chapter in history called the Johnson County Wars, in which various settlers fought over land and cattle in Wyoming in the 1890s. In Cimino’s version, hordes of Eastern European settlers swarmed the area, whereas in actuality, the immigrant population was likely not as all-encompassing. But the take did offer Cimino the chance to show how these new settlers would try to keep their own traditions in a new country, leading to a standoff against more established ranchers. The director then insisted on pointless reshoots and elaborate set details that multiplied his budget and extended his movie’s running time, nearly bankrupting the United Artists studio. By the time it was released almost a year past its original release date, the movie was viewed as a bloated mess, and Cimino received the Razzie for Worst Director. Time (and a considerable edit) has been kinder to Heaven’s Gate, and some now view the folly as its own kind of masterpiece. But although the director made four other movies, his career never recovered, making his own story a truncated version of the American dream: opportunity and promise derailed by seductive excess. [Gwen Ihnat]

7. Stroszek (1977)

While Wim Wenders saw wonder and promise in the American landscape, his fellow New German stalwart Werner Herzog was not so charitable. Stroszek follows an ex-convict (occasional leading man Bruno S., for whom the filmmaker wrote the project), a prostitute (Eva Mattes), and an old coot (Clemens Scheitz) as they leave their hard-knock lives in Berlin for the greener pastures of Wisconsin. Things do not go as they might have hoped. Simply setting an immigrant story in rural America, as opposed to a big city (and specifically New York, which does make an appearance), distinguishes Stroszek. This being a Herzog film, life is unforgiving, but the blame can’t just be placed on the heartless bank threatening to take away the trio’s new home. Bruno, after all, never gives up the bottle, even after he’s told in the opening minutes that booze will be his downfall. Although Herzog’s vision of small-town American hospitality is far from rosy, he lands on a bigger point: Simply changing locations will not solve your problems, at least the self-made ones. [A.A. Dowd]

8. An American Tail (1986)

America, the land of freedom and opportunity—and no cats. Such is the promise chased by the Mousekewitzes in Don Bluth’s animated An American Tail, as they leave behind their Cossack-torn homeland of Russia and journey to a place where they can live their lives without fear, in a country where “the streets are paved with cheese.” The 1986 film naturally shies away from making its parable of the Jewish immigrant experience too explicit; it’s supposed to be a kids’ movie, after all. Still, it can’t help but evoke some of the doom and gloom that makes the journey so treacherous, which is captured here in the story of young Fievel’s separation from his family and his attempts to navigate a strange new land filled with con men looking to exploit naïve foreigners, gangs warring along ethnic lines, and the realization that America isn’t the paradise it’s been made out to be. But of course, Fievel’s struggles only make the inevitable happy reunion with his relatives all the sweeter, offering testament to the indomitable optimism that this country was built on. [Sean O’Neal]

9. In America (2003)

In America is a strange paradox: an immigrant story of hardship and mourning that also glows with an almost Spielbergian fairy tale twinkle. Written by director Jim Sheridan and his daughters, the loosely autobiographical drama follows an Irish family—Johnny (Paddy Considine), Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their children, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger)—as they illegally emigrate into the country, moving into a rundown tenement building in Hell’s Kitchen. Much of the film deals with how this crestfallen clan deals with its grief following the death of the youngest child—a detail torn from the director’s childhood, when he lost his own brother. But Sheridan also filters this heavy material, and the grittiness of his pre-cleanup 1980s New York setting, through the eyes of his preadolescent characters: The Sullivans are poor and struggling and bereaved, but they see wonder in the big city they’ve made home, and kindness in another immigrant who lives next door, an anguished artist played by Djimon Hounsou. The magic of In America is that it acknowledges the odds stacked against newcomers to this country, even as it pays tribute to the mythic idea of a land of opportunity. [A.A. Dowd]

10. Maria Full Of Grace (2004)

Part immigration drama and part crime thriller, Maria Full Of Grace dramatically demonstrates the extreme measures people are willing to take to start a new life in America. In her screen debut, Colombian actor Catalina Sandino Moreno stars as Maria, a teenager whose life seems to have hit a dead end. Pregnant and recently fired from her job, and with no other employment options in sight, she decides to accept an offer to serve as a mule for a local drug kingpin. The agreement is that Maria is to swallow heroin pellets and transport them to the United States inside her stomach, knowing that if one of the pellets was to burst, she would die soon thereafter. With no other options, Maria decides to take the risk in order to start over in New York. She manages to survive the flight, but then finds herself stranded in a foreign place with no one but her best friend to support her. That’s when things start to go wrong. [Katie Rife]

11. Man Push Cart (2005)

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) was a rock star in his native Pakistan. In America, he sells coffee on street corners, pushing a heavy cart up and down New York City blocks to carve out a meager living. The debut feature from Ramin Bahrani, who’s devoted his entire career to working-class stories, Man Push Cart is about how personal and professional woes can converge to turn daily life into a Sisyphean burden; that cart is as much a boulder as it is the modern equivalent of the bicycle from Bicycle Thieves. At the same time, though, this is also a very specific story about how unforgiving the supposed land of opportunity can be, even for those willing to start over at the bottom and work their way back up. Too many people—immigrants and born citizens alike—never make it higher than the bottom. Compared to Man Push Cart, Bahrani’s next immigrant story, about a Senegalese cab driver trying to talk one of his regular fares out of killing himself, looks downright uplifting. [A.A. Dowd]

12. Dancer In The Dark (2000)

Traveling to new shores may mean opportunity or relative safety, but it also means vulnerability. Lars Von Trier’s 2000 musical drama Dancer In The Dark is a soul-shattering story of exploitation. Selma Jezkova (Björk), a Czech immigrant, works a factory job in Washington state—a job made more dangerous by the day due to her degenerative eye disease. Her sole purpose is to earn enough money to afford the surgery that will spare her son the same fate. For hope and relief, Selma turns to the romance of American musicals. She spends her free time at the cinema just listening while her friend taps out the dance moves on her palm, and when life’s heaviness or tedium overwhelms her, she escapes into daydreams where the whir and clank of her surroundings build into full-on musical productions involving anyone nearby. But her naïve dreams—forgive the phrasing—blind her to the competitive reality of poverty around her. In the end, a desperate neighbor takes advantage of her, pretending to leave her apartment and spying where she keeps her cash. He then scapegoats her for his own mistakes and drags her into a tragic undoing involving the legal system against which she never stood a chance. [Kelsey J. Waite]

13. The Godfather Part II (1974)

“I believe in America,” Bonasera the undertaker tells Vito Corleone at the beginning of the first Godfather. “America has made my fortune.” In The Godfather Part II, you find out how that belief applies to the Corleones as well. For all the storied scope of the film, spanning generations of the Corleone family business, it tells its story in small, almost procedural details: the health inspections at Ellis Island, the shakedown structure in 1917 New York, the lawyerly back and forth of a Senate investigation. By bifurcating the timeline and layering Vito’s rise to power over Michael’s, Francis Ford Coppola illustrates that belief in America twice, the details of each throwing the other into relief. If the first two Godfather films are, as Coppola has said, two halves of the same story, then they constitute a tragedy, beginning with Vito’s optimism and ending with Michael, utterly alone amid the dead foliage of his lake house retreat. But just before that cold final shot is a bustling, rich family dinner, full of busted chops, niceties over cake, and easy familial rapport. The tragedy of The Godfather Part II is Michael mistakenly thinking that Vito’s fortune was the lake house, when in fact the fortune that Vito made in America, what inspired his belief in this country, was not money but a home. It was that dinner. Vito’s story shows that the Corleone business started because of the Corleone family, a methodical illustration that America’s one sacred promise to immigrants is a chance. Michael’s story shows what happens when that promise is forgotten. [Clayton Purdom]

14. Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 debut won the Caméra D’Or at Cannes and inspired a new generation of indie cinema. At its core is an outsider’s view of America. New Yorkers Willie (John Lurie) and his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson) host Willie’s Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) when she comes for a visit, and we see her view of this strange new country through their eyes: a world where meals are encased in foil and fortunes rise and fall based on the fickle fates of the dog track. The three eventually travel to Cleveland and then to Florida, but in Jarmusch’s slick direction, all three places are indistinguishable from each other with their bleak black-and-white landscapes and cheap motel rooms. Eva’s American wants are meager—Chesterfield cigarettes and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins songs—but they appear to be enough to make her reject her home country in the end. Or maybe Eva stays because, as Eddie says, “You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same,” so why not stay in Cleveland, if it looks just like Budapest? [Gwen Ihnat]

15. The Visitor (2007)

The immigrant experience changes with every generation, and Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor is a compassionate portrait of the unique challenges faced by newcomers to a post-9/11 America. Richard Jenkins stars in a rare leading-man turn as Walter, a listless college professor who returns to the apartment he keeps in New York City only to find that it’s being occupied by two undocumented immigrants, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend. Despite his initial shock, Walter lets the couple stay in the apartment, where Tarek’s love of music begins to rub off on Walter, giving him a passion for life he hasn’t had in years. Their tentative friendship takes a dramatic turn for the political, however, when Tarek is arrested and sent to a detention center in Queens. Walter springs into action to try to rescue Talek from this nightmare, experiencing the cold, unsympathetic nature of the bureaucratic system firsthand. [Katie Rife]

16. The Namesake (2006)

Born in India but now based in New York, with a body of work that stretches from Mumbai to Mississippi, writer-director Mira Nair was the ideal choice to adapt Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel about a young Bengali couple that leaves Calcutta to raise a son on the American East Coast. The Namesake explores the immigrant experience through both a first- and second-generation lens: Flashbacks to arranged spouses Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) adjusting to life in New York in the late ’60s offset the main storyline, in which their son, Gogol (Kal Penn), begins to tentatively explore his heritage, including investigating the name he’s always resented. The result is a decades-spanning drama that understands the challenge of building a life in a different country while still keeping the traditions of your homeland alive (especially for kids who’ve known only one culture their whole lives). Nair’s experience on the subject—as both an immigrant and a filmmaker with her feet firmly planted in multiple national cinemas—lends The Namesake an extra personal dimension. [A.A. Dowd]

17. Brooklyn (2015)

Brooklyn—John Crowley and Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel—weighs the values of immigration as reflected through a heroine who isn’t driven by necessity. In the 1950s, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) bids farewell to a quiet, but not unhappy, existence in Ireland to journey to New York. Upon arriving she’s beset by a fierce case of homesickness that numbs her to her surroundings. It finally lets up when she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), who not only pursues a romance with her but also allows her to see how she could build a life for herself in America. But just as she’s settling into those joyous rhythms, a death necessitates a trip back to Ireland. She returns a more confident young woman, but even as she wears the advantages of her new life proudly—in some cases literally, what with her swank fashions—she feels a stronger connection to her homeland that makes the prospect of going back to America unappealing, despite the man waiting for her. In the film, neither country is a villain, and both options are legitimate, the narrative becoming about personal choice and how place can define character. [Esther Zuckerman]

18. Sugar (2008)

It’s not just American kids who get seduced by the impossible dream of American athletics. Professional baseball, especially, has a habit of chewing up and spitting out young prospects from the Dominican Republic, among other places south of the border. That’s mostly the arc of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar, about a pitcher (Algenis Perez Soto) from San Pedro De Macorís who gets drafted by the big leagues, then struggles to adapt to both life in the States and the high expectations put on him as a rookie with a lot riding on his first season. As a sports drama, Sugar is wildly unconventional, never conforming to the underdog clichés of its genre. But that’s mostly because it’s really more of a fish-out-of-water story, interested in the way its immigrant hero copes with culture shock. (One smart, comic detail: He keeps eating a dish he doesn’t like at the local diner because it’s the only thing on the menu he knows how to order.) The film ultimately refutes the notion of pro sports as a bankable escalator out of poverty and hardship, before locating a different, more modestly inspiring kind of American dream in the shadow of New York City. [A.A. Dowd]

19. Coming To America (1988)

This John Landis-directed vehicle for Eddie Murphy presages the actor’s eventual career nadir by being the first film in which Murphy plays multiple roles. The central being Akeem Joffer, prince of the fictional African nation of Zamunda. Reluctant to marry his servile arranged bride, Akeem, along with best pal and bodyguard Semmi (Arsenio Hall, also playing multiple roles) elects instead to travel to New York in search of an independent woman to marry. The movie plays up the contrast between Akeem’s golden upbringing and his time in America by depositing them in the shadiest neighborhood in Queens. While Semmi tries to maintain something resembling his affluent lifestyle, Akeem rejects it in favor of emulating a more humble immigrant’s experience by living in a bug-infested slum, working a menial job at a fast food restaurant, and denying his royal origins. It’s all playacting though. Eventually Akeem returns to Zamuda, having learned valuable lessons about life and love, if not necessarily the inequitable distribution of wealth within a marginalized population. [Nick Wanserski]

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