The United States of America — the country built on immigration and diversity. From its onset, this nation has been seen as the land of opportunity for anyone willing to work hard to achieve their goals. As a result, immigration has been the subject matter for a myriad of films, each choosing to focus on the many implications of moving to a different country.
However, while movies dealing with this topic take many different directions, immigration movies have mostly chosen to approach these films in two ways: depicting the abuse faced by immigrants and focusing on immigrants’ struggle to find their identity.
This mistreatment toward immigrants is seen in movies like “Desierto,” “The Immigrant,” “Dancer in the Dark” and “Gangs of New York.” In “Desierto,” a man takes matters into his own hands, going on a manhunt to kill any and all immigrants trying to cross the border into the United States. In “The Immigrant,” a young woman is forced into a world of prostitution in order to provide for herself and reunite with her sister. “Dancer in the Dark,” directed by the controversial Lars von Trier, features Björk, a blind woman who must earn enough money to pay for her son’s eye surgery so he does not suffer the same fate. However, the woman’s plans soon turn when a policeman steals her savings, and she kills him. “Gangs of New York” shows the pushback against Irish immigration in the times of the Civil War, particularly the violence and mayhem that ensued at this time. All of these movies depict the abuse many immigrants have to go through in hopes of a better life. While individuals come to the United States with goals of achieving the American Dream, they are rudely awakened, realizing that they must face the hatred of closed-minded people.
While some movies solely focus on the pain and hardships of immigrants, others paint the assimilation process individuals go through when they arrive to the United States. “Moscow on the Hudson” has Robin Williams as a Russian man who must learn how to deal with the cultural shift from communism to utter consumerism. “Coming to America” features an African prince looking for a wife in the United States, all while having to balance his life between the persona in the slums of Queens and his real identity as heir to the throne back home. “The Joy Luck Club” tells the the story of generations of Asian women having to adjust to American culture, all while honoring their Asian roots. Similarly, “The Kite Runner” is the moving story of a young man who fails to defend his childhood friend, but makes it up by saving that same friends child from war-torn Afghanistan and bringing him to safety in America. In “The Godfather: Part II,” we see Vito coming to America, escaping from crime in Italy and building his mafia empire in a new country. In all of these films, there is an evident struggle between immigrants adopting a new American culture and keeping their own heritage. While this balance is often hard to find, these characters show the payoffs of embracing and learning from both cultures.
These movies provide perspective on the immigrant experience and its many hardships. Since these experiences are unknown to many, the main purpose of these films serve to raise awareness and increase tolerance for individuals that come from other countries. With the political climate how it is, it is essential to see immigrants as people with different stories, backgrounds and beliefs.
Fortunately, movies that focus on this subject narrate a story that manages to relate to audiences from different backgrounds as well. While audiences may not have much in common with the character they are watching on screen, they know that the one thing they have in common is their differences: Just like that character they are seeing in the film, they themselves have a narrative completely that is unique. The commonality in differences allows audiences to empathize with the character, putting themselves in their shoes and even learning through the character.