The immigrant experience remains one of great challenges, trials and tribulations, no matter the time period or socioeconomic circumstances of the immigrant. Over the years, movies have captured countless stories showcasing one or many aspects of the immigrant experience, from the early days of immigration to America, to the present day, where immigrants face new, yet not entirely different, challenges to those preceding them in the journey.
While we often see that movies take creative liberties when it comes to portraying cultures or adapting a book, all of these movies show a different aspect of the immigrant experience by helping us remember that immigration is a uniquely individual experience, one that is life-changing for those going through it and for the communities they later join.
Here are fifteen movies that, in one way or another, illustrate the experience of an immigrant or an immigrant group or family.
Surprised to see a movie about a Mafia boss on this list? While this is a different angle to consider when it comes to immigration, there is one very important aspect about immigration that the two first Godfather films portray very well: how the network you leave at your country of origin, as well as the community you join in your new country, become your support system and a stepping stone to make your own way in your new country. In addition to the emphasis that the movie places in the cohesion of their family unit on the Corleone’s success in maintaining their empire, The Godfather II chronicles the Corleone’s story in America, starting with their first Corleones coming to New York by way of Ellis Island, the main port of entry for Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. We recommend watching The Godfather I first, of course, for context on the Corleones and Marlon Brando’s masterful portrayal of Vito Corleone, the family patriarch.
This Steven Spielberg movie is based on the true story of Mehram Karimi Nasseri, who passed away a few months ago at the airport he spent decades calling his home. Nasseri, the real-life person, spent decades stuck at Charles de Gaulle airport, because of “legal hurdles to prove his refugee status”. In the fictional version, the main character, played by Tom Hanks, who flies to New York from Eastern Europe, gets stuck at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City after a coup in his (fictional) country renders him stateless, as no one recognizes his passport as valid. Hanks’ character, Viktor, must then wait at the airport until he is allowed to officially enter the United States, and makes his home at the airport. Over time, he becomes friends with multiple members of the airport staff, and he makes a living thanks to the kindness of others.
This movie is a great reminder of the uncertainty, and long waits, that characterize the immigrant experience. It’s also a good reminder of how, even when an immigrant has done everything right, something out of their hands could upend their status.
This comedy, where Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall play multiple roles each, tells the story of Akeem, played by Murphy, the prince of a fictional African country, who’s used to an extremely lavish lifestyle. However, Akeem is unhappy with the bride that has been arranged for him, and wants to find a wife he can marry for her intelligence and whom he can respect. In order to do this without his royal status getting in the way, Akeem and his best friend Semmi, played by Hall, embark on an adventure to go “undercover” in New York City and live a normal life. Akeem insists on living as far removed from his royal lifestyle as possible, and goes as far as moving to a less-than-desirable part of Queens, taking a minimum-wage job, and posing as an exchange student in hopes of finding someone who will love him for who he is and not his riches and status as heir of the fictional country of Zamuda.
Bearing in mind that this movie is a comedy and Murphy’s comedic style can be rather bombastic, Coming to America does show how many immigrants are unable to access better opportunities upon immigrating to the United States and how low-skill industries such as the service industry rely on immigrant labor.
Based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, which we also recommend, this movie explores the immigrant experience from the first and second-generation perspective, as it shows how Gogol, the main character, struggles with his dual identity as an Indian as an American, and wants to fit in with American society and culture. At the same time, the movie explores the story of Gogol’s parents, who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s shortly after their wedding in an arranged marriage. Over time, Gogol begins exploring his heritage with more interest, and building a more balanced sense of identity between his two cultures. In this particular case, the movie is directed by an Indian-American who could personally relate to some of the experiences and cultural traits of the story’s characters.
This movie is based on a nonfiction book published in the late 1920s and named like the movie. Set on the Five Points neighborhood of New York around the early 1860s, Gangs of New York focuses on Irish Americans as a major group of immigrants in New York City, as well as others that were, at the time, considered as “less than”, yet could establish a level of superiority over other groups, made possible by the rampant corruption that dictates which ethnic group becomes the dominant one in Five Points. The movie also displays the tensions between “Natives”, or those American-born, whether they are of immigrant origin or not, and first-generation immigrants. This movie shows a level of violence between ethnic groups we hope is a thing of the past; however, the way it shows tensions that go beyond ethnic-based reasonings, including religious differences between immigrant groups, and tensions reflecting the prevailing political and social tensions of the society at large.
This film focuses on experience of a Jewish immigrant family in the 20th century and brings up some themes that may be common to the immigrant experience in general, such as the multigenerational struggles of maintaining close links to traditions and culture of the home country, the feelings of trepidation that some levels of assimilation may bring to immigrant families, such as incorporating American holidays, and the disconnect between older and younger generations over not speaking their native language. However, Avalon also addresses the grief immigrants often experience when the ties to the home they left behind begin to loosen, for a number of reasons. When thinking about watching Avalon, we should not ignore the lingering effects of the Holocaust on the main family portrayed, while chasing a better life in a new country with a high level of abundance.
In this romantic, dramatic comedy, the immigrant experience is illustrated through defection. A musician visiting the United States from Soviet Russia decides to defect and stay in the United States, which he decides to do while visiting a department store. The movie focuses on the stark differences Vladimir, played by Robin Williams, notices between his Soviet home during the time of the Cold War, and the seemingly paradise-like conditions of the United States, where everything seems attainable as long as you work for it. In line with a comedy starring Robin Williams, the process of requesting asylum in the United States, and even deciding to defect, is riddled with comical situations Vladimir creatively gets out of. As time goes by, though, Vladimir realizes that life in America isn’t as dreamy as he envisioned it to be initially.
While the movie gets criticism for a pro-American portrayal informed by the prevailing conservative politics of the time, an endearing moment in the movie comes through the oath new citizens recite in naturalization ceremonies.
Another story based on an immigrant in the early 20th century, The Immigrant tells the story of Ewa, a Polish immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island, initially with her sister; upon initial entry, the sisters get separated, and Ewa ends up in New York City and becomes a victim of exploitation. The power of this movie goes beyond a story of someone who falls prey to false promises and needs to find a way out of difficult situations. Indeed, the Immigrant explores Ewa’s experiences living amongst other immigrants in harrowing conditions, the psychological and physical toll that the hard choices that come with being a poor immigrant carry, and in the midst of it, how Ewa reconnects with parts of her heritage she had been disengaged from, including her religion and her ethnic traditions.
This is the only animated movie on our list, telling the story of Fivel as an immigrant leaving the “gloom and doom” of his Russian town to go to a land of opportunity…and loads of cheese. This is, of course, a children’s movie, so it will not show the starkest difficulties of the immigrant experience at its most dark and gloomy. However, it does show Fivel missing his family, adapting to a new country, and realizing that the idealized version of America that he came looking for was a figment of his imagination. Given that it’s a children’s movie, it does, unsurprisingly, have a happy ending.
We’ve chosen this movie as an example of a film showcasing the story of an immigrant driven by desperation. Maria, a young Colombian woman working in a flower packing plant, becomes pregnant and, in an attempt to find better options for herself and her child, gets involved in smuggling drugs into the United States. Instead of relying on stereotypes, Maria Full of Grace focuses on Maria’s ability to be quick on her feet to figure things out using common sense. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert praises the movie’s focus on how poverty affects immigrants before and after they immigrate by emphasizing that “Marston has made a film that understands and accepts poverty without the need to romanticize or exaggerate it”, and how this movie steps away from the Hollywood tendency to “simplify the world for moviegoers by pretending evil is generated by individuals, not institutions”.
This story is set in the mid-1960s and stars Icelandic artist Björk as Selma, a Czechoslovakian immigrant who moves to the US with the goal of making enough money to afford the surgery that will spare her young son from going blind, as she is, due to a hereditary disease. Selma performs a dangerous job that becomes even more dangerous due to her declining eyesight, and due to her strong focus on securing the funds for the surgery, will at times risk her safety to make enough money. Selma derives great joy from musicals, which bring a respite from her extremely difficult life, and become an additional activity she engages in.
This movie touches on multiple possible facets of the immigrant experience this movie depicts: challenges in accessing healthcare, needing to work multiple jobs to the detriment of their wellbeing to make ends meet, and lack of opportunities for leisure, among others.
This indie movie showcases a view of the idealized country (in this case, the United States) from the eyes of visitors coming from a different country and culture. Willie and Eddie, the main character, host Willie’s Hungarian cousin Eva, and the three of them embark on a road trip where Eva, initially wanting very simple American pleasures, finds similarities between America and her home, enough to make herself comfortable and find comfort in the perceived bleakness of both places for different reasons.
A Better Life tells the story of an undocumented immigrant working as a gardener in Los Angeles. As is the reality for millions of undocumented immigrants, the fear of being deported and separated from his family looms large for the main character. Carlos Galindo’s main focus is, as the movie title indicates, to provide “a better life” for his son. As part of this effort, Carlos works hard to maintain his job, support his family, and at the same time, keep his son away from the influence of gangs in the East Los Angeles area where they live. Father and son bond further after Carlos’ truck is stolen and later resold, which attracts the attention of the police, threatening Carlos’ immigration status.
This is a film that primarily focuses on the human side of the story of undocumented immigrants, and the great sacrifices they make in their pursuit of a better life for their families than the ones they have or have had.
Minari is the story of a Korean-American family in the 1980s that moves to Arkansas after living in California. Minari, which is the Korean word for a leafy green that roughly translates to water celery. Farming minari is the initial motivation for the family to move to Arkansas; the father, following his entrepreneurial spirit, struggles to get the farming operation off the ground, and the mother, isolated from what she knows and her former community in the West, isn’t convinced this is the right move for the family. The children, integrated into American culture, receive a shock when their grandmother moves in with them and with her, the old-country ways that the kids are not used to. This, like other movies, brings the inter-generational situations that are at times comical and at other times, reflect the struggle of immigrants to stay connected to their cultures back home and integrate into American culture. An endearing example of this intergenerational exchange happens when one of the children introduces grandma to the soft drink Mountain Dew, while grandma teaches the children a game riddled with Korean swear words. The director draws on his own experiences as a Korean-American growing up in Arkansas to illustrate life for the main family, touching on the cultural differences that can be found at times within the same family, and among neighbors of different ethnicities and cultures, without over-generalizing.
This movie is set in New York City in the 1980s and focuses on an Irish family which immigrates to the United States without legal status while grieving the death of a child. They find themselves in a community of immigrants, where they bond with a kind neighbor and find hope and wonder in the city itself and the possibilities it affords them, with special emphasis on the remaining two children in the family. Most of the movie focuses on the family’s situation from a child’s perspective, and serves as an example of how it’s possible for white immigrants to face similar challenges from discrimination as their counterparts of color.
Art imitates life, and these movies are simply a small sample of stories showcasing the immigrant experience, one that as an immigration lawyer you may be familiar with, yet find new, inspiring stories amongst your clients every day.
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