Why Seeing the Immigrant Experience in Movies Has Never Been More Important

     April 18, 2017


Two weeks ago, Twitter was doing what Twitter’s primarily been doing for the last five months or so, namely freaking out about Donald Trump and his increasingly unpredictable kleptocracy. Amidst the Sean Spicer jokes and deluges of critical articles, however, there was time to speak of a far more admirable and giving icon of the media, Roger Ebert, on the four-year anniversary of his passing. His wife, Chaz Ebert, tweeted out articles, pictures, and announcements of events while critics, writers, colleagues, and fans pulled and shared their favorite pieces or quotes from the Ebert canon. They dug up sour responses to such atrocities as Blame It On Rio and Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo, or quoted his enthusiastic support for filmmakers ranging from the Coens to Ava DuVernay. Others rightly seized on his surpassingly eloquent final piece on Terrence Malick’s grossly undervalued To the Wonder. Amongst the Grand Puba’s many one-sentence dollops of wisdom, one particular opinion of Ebert’s seemed to rise above the rest, either in its full form or paraphrased: “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.”


Image via Criterion Collection

It’s a bold proclamation to single out any art form as uniquely effective above the rest but Ebert knew what he was talking about. Unlike books, there is no requirement of literacy in movies, though a viewer might miss a few plot points. Unlike music, there’s a consistent visual component, an opportunity to bear witness with one’s own eyes. Its closest kin is the theater, which hinges on a set physical place for performance, even if it’s not necessarily inside a theater. Movies can go everywhere these days and though certain stage productions incorporate video elements into the production, the impact of the piece is entirely dependent on the stage itself and who’s on it. As for TV, there is a matter of directness: a season of good TV takes 10 hours to make its entire point where most movies tap out at around 120-150 minutes. There are convincing arguments against all of these opinions but this is how Ebert’s proclamation came to make sense to me.

Ebert always seemed to have a particular soft spot for the tales of immigrants in America. More than that, he fell in love with characters that were lost and were trying to find a grip in the world, even if that grip ended with even more confusion. One of the movies that he all but single-handedly elevated to the attention to ill-informed audiences is El Norte, Gregory Nava’s devastating study of a brother and sister making their way from Guatemala to America. It’s a film about leaving an untenable situation in the hopes that the unknown will yield something more manageable and yet Central America has rarely looked so luminous. Nava was born in California but he evinces a wholly convincing and captivating vision of feeling at once bewitched and rejected by one’s homeland; it’s likely a nod to his parents, who were Mexican and Basque respectively. Regardless of where the impulses and wisdom came from, El Norte makes great, grueling drama out of the battle for nothing more than a chance at a better life but never goes as far as to deny the beauty and comfort that even a wildly corrupt and death-ridden country can elicit in its people.

I’ve been recommending Nava’s sophomore triumph a lot recently, no doubt pushed toward the front of the queue by the “Muslim Ban” and continued talk of the ridiculous wall separating America from Mexico. Having a cultural touchstone for such political arguments in the arts becomes an easy, relatable, and often crucial tool in discussion, and the more popular or readily available, the better. That’s why El Norte deserved to be held up in Ebert’s estimation from what I can tell, and it’s the same reason he locked onto Ramin Bahrani and his early trilogy about the immigrant experience, which includes Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo.


Image via Koch Lorber

Bahrani’s first three films deal less with the process of letting go and more with the process of acclimating without submitting one’s personal and cultural history as an outsider. For much of Man Push Cart, the focus is on the day-to-day work of Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) a Pakistani ex-pat working alone in his own food cart in Manhattan but it’s a late revelation that brings out the hurt and alienation that lies beyond his quotidian struggles. At one point, Ahmad admits that, in his homeland, he was something of a pop star and celebrity, signaling that his initial intent was to break out in America. He did not, and now he is something like a complete unknown to anyone but other Pakistanis who have made it to these shores. Unlike the drama of the equally good Chop Shop, which details the threat of Citifield on the nearby immigrant-heavy mechanic shop strip in Queens, Man Push Cart looks at the intimate, interior stresses, regrets, and mistakes that amplify the unjust inequalities that immigrants face in America, rather than the exterior ones.

Bahrani was born in North Carolina to Iranian parents and the very fact that he is capable of evincing such rarely expressed feelings of loneliness and melancholy suggests that Bahrani knows the feeling of alienation by extension. It’s much more surprising to see how compellingly Richard Linklater expresses the toil, danger, horror, and incredible promise of life in America for South American immigrants. In Fast Food Nation, he adds just the right dollop of dramatic pulp to highlight the unsafe, unsanitary, and often criminal workplaces that immigrants are all too willing to comply with in the name of having a place in America. It features easily the best work that Wilmer Valderrama has ever put to screen and Linklater makes gripping use of Catalina Sandino Moreno – she of Maria Full of Grace – as his long-suffering wife who takes a job on the horrifying “kill floor” at a meat-processing plant. Few movies lay out the all-important, unenviable place of immigrant workers in the gears of major corporations so clearly, while also taking the time to detail them as complex, flawed characters, worthy of both understanding and a modicum of derision.

Considering my own background – paternal Jewish grandparents fled Russia to become modestly successful grocers in Pittsburgh – the work of James Gray is uniquely affective. Here, it’s the tremors of the traditions of where one comes from that seem to clash with the vast, uncontrollable freedoms that America allows that is of primary concern. In his first film, Little Odessa, Maximilian Schell’s Soviet-born paterfamilias must contend with his own indiscretions against his ill wife while also facing his eldest son, Joshua (Tim Roth), a hitman for the Russian-Jewish mafia. The criminal organization itself is a perfect encapsulation of toxic traditionalism and nationalism, but Gray gives sobering mortal weight to every decision that Joshua makes, criminal and otherwise. The tragedy of Joshua’s life is that he makes his heritage indistinguishable from his personal sense of pride, and makes the defense of his heritage, even in the most degraded and illicit form, the only true measure of his life. When we meet him, he’s trying to get beyond that; when we leave him, he’s little more than a husk of a person.


Image via Miramax

Of course, no tale is more integral to this than Gray’s The Immigrant, one of the best films of this or any other decades and a rare survivor of Harvey Weinstein’s notorious cut-it-into-a-hit philosophy. From the opening shot of the Statue of Liberty to the piercing ending, Gray’s fifth film charts the life of Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish Catholic who arrives in New York in 1921 and faces the degradations and possibilities of American life. She loses her sister at Ellis Island and quickly becomes a prostitute under Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a Jewish pimp who runs a gaggle of girls as if he’s Barnum and Bailey. The period setting might soften its importance but the fiscal, personal, moral, religious, and societal compromises that must be made to afford any kind of life outside of a poverty-and-war-torn homeland are felt with reverberating assurance. The compromises remain as difficult as anything else to become accustomed to in America, and little more than the size of the buildings has changed in terms of how these submissions tear a person’s sense of personality and history apart.

Unlike so many films of this ilk, The Immigrant has something of a happy ending, a chance for Ewa to keep a part of her family and homeland with her. It’s hard to tell if there are more hard-won victories or crushing defeats at this point, if something like The Immigrant is considered a fantasy on par with Brooklyn or a reasonably complex and convincing depiction of the experience. One can’t help but feel similar about the class conflict that weighs on Gray’s The Lost City of Z, which saw release this past weekend. That Gray even had the inkling to spend his time and money (and other people’s money) on such a grim yet masterful works suggests a still-thriving, radical empathy still at work in the movies. It’s at once one of the most unexpected and vital truths to find one’s self reflecting upon amidst the chaos of 2017.

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