The primary concept, that people come to the United States for a better life, gets thrown around a lot in political and humanitarian circles.
It also serves as the backbone of a very American art medium: film. Hollywood has found many different ways to tell immigrants’ stories over the years.
There’s no shortage of movies that address the American immigration experience, in all its messiness, and they come in many forms: comedy, romance, drama, action-adventure. Here are 10 of the best of them — with a superhero movie in the mix for good measure.
“The Godfather, Part II” (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola’s epic sequel to “The Godfather” shows how Don Corleone came to America from Sicily, orphaned, penniless and hungry, and built his criminal empire. It also shows how difficult such empires are to maintain as well as the toll it takes on his family.
There are many takes on the Man of Steel, including one coming out in a few short months from Zack Snyder, but Richard Donner’s epic starring Christopher Reeve is still the template. Kal-el — who can only be described as a young, orphaned and undocumented immigrant — is sent to Earth by his parents as his home world blows up. He’s raised by a friendly couple in the Midwest and grows up to be a superhero who saves his adopted land from the evil Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman.
“The Border” (1982)
Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel and Warren Oates are Border Patrol agents in Tony Richardson’s action drama. Keitel’s character pithily expresses a problem that plagues the system today: “Seems kind of silly, don’t it? We’re bustin’ our asses to send ’em back. Respectable businesspeople are paying to bring ’em in.”
Brian De Palma’s gloriously gonzo gangster film is a pop culture and hip-hop icon. But it’s still an immigrant’s tale: Al Pacino’s thuggish Tony Montana leaves Cuba and pursues the American dream in Miami. It’s just an American dream fueled by cocaine sales and ultra-violence, the darkest side of capitalism and opportunity.
“El Norte” (1983)
Gregory Nava’s movie about siblings fleeing Guatemala, their travails through Mexico and the challenges they face in Los Angeles as undocumented workers was one of the first films released in the United States that humanized a population living in the shadows.
“Green Card” (1990)
Peter Weir’s movie stars Frenchman Gerard Depardieu as an immigrant who enters into a marriage of convenience with Andie McDowell in order to stay in the United States. And wouldn’t you know it: They fall in love. The film is particularly interesting given the current weirdness surrounding Depardieu: He renounced his French citizenship in a huff over taxes, moved to Belgium and was offered a Russian passport by Vladimir Putin.
“Born in East L.A.” (1987)
Cheech Marin directed and starred in this comedy about an American of Mexican descent who is mistakenly deported and has to figure out a way to get back home, a task made difficult by the fact that he has no way of proving he is a U.S. citizen.
“Mississippi Masala” (1991)
Mira Nair’s early film depicts an Indian family that is expelled from Uganda and settles in Mississippi. The difficulties of assimilation, for both migrants and natives, come to a head when the family’s daughter, Sarita Choudhury, falls in love with local boy Denzel Washington.
“House of Sand and Fog” (2003)
Vadim Perelman’s tragedy is about an Iranian refugee, played by Ben Kingsley, whose pursuit to restore his family’s honor and station in California threatens to consume the life of a woman trying to get back her family house, as well as the lives of the refugee’s own family.
“Under the Same Moon” (2007)
Patricia Riggen’s film follows a little boy who leaves Mexico after his grandmother dies to reunite with his mother in the United States. He has to rely on a network of strangers to help him and along the way is exposed to the hazards and exploitations that undocumented immigrants face.
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