6 Essential Films about The American Immigrant Experience

The news of the executive order to suspend visas and effectively ban all travel to America from seven predominantly Muslim countries got us reeling. The immigrant experience is the American experience. And as such, it is a subject ripe for cinematic storytelling. I wanted to share with you a list of films about immigrants that in my mind, show the hardships, triumphs and consequences of their lives. These films humanize, empathize, showing the worlds they left behind and, sometimes with a sense of humor, sometimes with fear, but always with hope for a better life.

The Godfather Part II (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

The all time greatest sequel, prequel and one of the all time greatest movies, starts off with a young Vito (last name at this point is Andolini) growing up in Sicily. His father and brother have both been killed by a local mob boss, and he must flee the country for his own safety. He finds his way onto a boat headed for America, which docks at Ellis Island, where he is put in quarantine for thirty days. But not before the immigration officials change his last name to Corleone, because the boy is too afraid to speak (and doesn’t understand English).

This harrowing, largely wordless sequence, is in my mind the best depiction of the immigrant’s journey ever captured on film. It’s 1901 and industrialization is already starting to change the world forever. All of his fellow passengers are just looking for better lives. Vito is there not by choice of his own, but by that of some caring adults who don’t want to see him killed.

As Vito grows older (into a very handsome, young Robert DeNiro), he finds himself starting a family in the Italian tenement neighborhood of little Italy, on the lower east side. Vulnerable to local extortionist Don Fanucci, he realizes he doesn’t have to simply take what is given to him, as he begins plotting ways to find a better and bigger life for himself and his family.

On the surface The Godfather is a mob story- but its subtext is the story of the American dream, and the way a minority group like the Italians became Italian-Americans, assimilating into whiteness. It’s only appropriate that the end of the final chapter, The Godfather Part III, goes full circle, with the Corleone family winding up back in their native Sicily.

Goodbye, Solo (dir. Ramin Bahrani)

The ghosts and promises of two different American dreams are all over Goodbye, Solo, Ramin Bahrani’s 2009 indie darling. Souleymane Sy Savane stars as Solo, a senegalese cab driver in tiny Winston Salem, NC, who picks up a passenger named William (Red West) who asks him to drive out to Blowing Rock, a cliff outside town. Asking not for a ride back, Solo becomes suspicious that William intends to commit suicide. Instead of following through on the ride, Solo strikes up a mostly one sided pursuit of a friendship with William, hoping to remind him of the joys of living. Solo is an ebullient man whose life is all ahead of him, as he dreams of the possibilities of life in America (despite the many economic challenges staring him in the face). William is a man with a haunted past that he is slow to reveal. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship, and the way that letting someone beyond our walls can heal us.

It’s also the story of old America and new America. William represents the “strong, silent type” of yesterday- the kind of guy who might have voted recently to “make america great again.” But his life choices have led to immense pain and suffering. Solo, with his endless optimism, spirit, and relationship-centered way of being, represents one vision of the future of America. It’s a heartwarming, funny, and sad little film, one that Roger Ebert championed significantly.

El Norte (dir. Gregory Nava)

Roger Ebert was also a lover of this 1983 film, about a brother and sister who flee Guatemala to the United States in hopes of making a better life. It was produced for PBS before being considered for theatrical release- it then made its way around to film festivals and grew to having the kind of renown respect it has today (complete with a Criterion Collection release). While it does have the look and feel of a television production, characters and stories like this just don’t make it to film often enough. It’s a harrowing story, with a brutal ending of cold, hard reality- one that suggests that for all that an immigrant can gain in America, there is often a terrible price.

Gangs Of New York (dir. Martin Scorsese) 

Here’s another story that’s not as much about gang warfare (as the title suggests), but more about the ways that immigrant communities sought power and standing in 19th century New York City. Martin Scorsese started his love affair with Leonardo DiCaprio here, but nothing can compare to Daniel Day Lewis’ method acting, scenery chewing brilliance of ruthless nativist boss Bill “The Butcher.” It’s the kind of historical epic that is bloated, too long and heavily reliant on exposition (almost like a 90’s film, but made in the early 00’s), but I dare you to try and turn it off when it comes on television.

Sin Nombre (dir. Cary Fukunaga) 

Directed by Cary Fukanaga (who would go on to garner more acclaim for directing all episodes of the first season of HBO’s True Detective), this film is an immersive look into the journey of two young people fleeing untenable circumstances in their Central American hometowns. While it bears narrative similarities to El Norte, it doubles as a crime drama, meaning it could pull in certain viewers who might not be otherwise interested. One of these young people is Willy (Edgar Flores), who has to flee after getting into some trouble with his MS-13 gang members. Another is Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran girl trying to make her way to family in New Jersey. Unlike many other immigrant stories about the challenges of adjusting to a new life in America, Sin Nombre is about the journey there. We see the stakes involved, and the horrible dangers one is faced with. People don’t do this for fun.

It is a visually breathtaking film, with much of the film taking place atop a train heading north, carrying hundreds of people hitching a ride on top. As a filmmaker, Fukunaga has proven that he has a gifted eye. In Sin Nombre, he imbues a heavy subject with considerable beauty.

Amreeka (dir. Cherien Dabis) 

Directed by Palestinian-American filmmaker Cherien Dabis, Amreeka made waves at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. It tells the story of a Palestinian family blessed with the good grace of a green card through a lottery system. Almost ready to ignore it and stay behind with what they are familiar with, they change their mind after they’re harassed at the border by Israeli checkpoint soldiers.

They land in Illinois where they arrive to live with family members. The contrast of the occupied land they came from with the sprawling, flat suburban midwest is shocking, and makes for a lot of the humor and drama in this sweet tiny film. It illustrates candidly the challenges of a Palestinian family in America in post-9/11 America. Racism, xenophobia, and distrust abound through their experience in their new home. Yet Dabis finds a way to make the movie quite heartwarming, as unexpected connections with American strangers present themselves and the family tries to find the good in everyday living in the land of the free, while holding on to dreams of the home from whence they came.

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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