Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Movies about immigration that aren't about immigration

I love watching movies. Whether it's re-watching my favorites or checking out something more recent, I love movies. This isn't something casual, I mean I really love movies. I'm into their soundtracks, cinema-photography, costumes, script, all that stuff most folks could care less about.

Anyway. Movies about immigration. We've all seen at least one, and each generation has their go to film when they wanna share with others. It's safe to say that the more recent, A Better Life, is the go to film right now. And if you look online, you'll find list galore of other films that fall within the range of telling a dramatic and emotional story involving immigration.

I looked through a bunch of list and they all had great selections mixing mainstream movies with those that are independent and documentaries as well. I got inspired to create my own buzzfeed like list of movies that are about immigration, but not necessarily about immigration, you get me? Immigration is such a multifaceted issue, with soo many different ways to share the stories of those who have immigrated to the US. In the spirit of inclusivity, I now offer you my personal picks of movies about immigration that aren't about immigration. Trust me on this one.


I gotta admit, I didn't put much into Premium Rush because as a cyclist, I was all like, "a movie about bike messengers? Nahhhhh. Even though Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favorite actors, I dismissed it and caught it on DVD. At face value, the movie is suppose to be about a bike messenger who is being chased by a crooked cop. In reality, the movie is about the smuggling and extortion of Chinese immigrants in the New York area. I know right? Pretty random. Of course, the movie doesn't delve into the abyss that is human smuggling, but you get the gist of it. If you want a good read on the trafficking of Chinese immigrants into the US, you can read this piece.   

It's atrocious that Scarface never makes anyone's list of movies about immigration. That's what the whole movie is about, that is if you don't count the drugs and violence. The story goes off the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, in which Fidel Catro opened up the Mariel harbor and 125,000 Cuban refugees left Cuba and settled in the US. 

I love Scarface because it's a movie that exemplifies the drive and passion immigrants have to come to the US and have a better life. In the case of Tony Montana, he built a drug empire. Most folks come to raise families, but hey, we all have different goals in life.

Léon: The Professional is one of my all time favorite films. Jean Reno is one of my favorite actors and Gary Oldman is pimp in this. It also features a young, but talented Natalie Portman. Director and writer Luc Besson also wrote and directed another of my favorite films, The Fifth Element. Leon is a french immigrant living in New York, working as a hit man. At a young age, his then girlfriend was killed and blinded by rage, he killed her killer. This resulted in him having to leave France and moving to the US.

I can write for days about this movie, but the last thing I'll mention is the emotional arc Leon goes through after he saves Matilda. That shit hits home because he's a loner. He has no friends, no family and no significant other since his girlfriend was killed. Being alone in a foreign country with no one to trust while being exploited can fuck with you in soo many ways. All Leon wanted was to have roots. To be planted down in one single space and not have to run and hide anymore.

Green Card stars french actor Gérard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell in a basic story about two people going into a green card marriage, but then they end up falling in love for real. Awwww, it's just like every other movie about green card marriages. The last movie that use this situation as its premise was "The Proposal." It starred that horrible Sandra Bullock and occasionally funny Ryan Reynolds. Anyways, reason I like green card because it's an old school 90's movie. It has its moments and it's a highly romanticized notion of green card marriages, which is what makes it funny. 

I was back and forth with Fast Food Nation because it focuses on the horrors practiced in the meat packing industry. Of all of the inhumane practices companies take to save a buck, the exploitation of Mexican workers is one of them. I read the book for an English class and loved it. Saw the movie and I liked it. A lot of these movies tend to make folks vegetarians for a few days, and because these shitty work place practices are presented to the viewer in a dramatized fashion, there's little retention after it's all said and done. 

I've had family members work in these kind of plants and I was never easy to hear what they had to go through. Especially when you hear stories of people falling into machines and limbs being cut off. There are organizations that work out in the midwest helping immigrants stand up against these factories that hire them only to be exploited and deported back to Mexico. This New York Times article has more info if you're curious.    

The Coneheads is another of my all time favorite movies. What started out in Saturday Night Live skits turned into a full movie. I've loved Dan Aykroid since I first saw him in Ghostbusters and in the Blues Brothers. It also has the wonderful Phil Hartman and the hilarious Chris Farley. It had a bunch of people from SNL, let's just leave it at that. 

Coneheads should be self explanatory. I mean come on, it's a movie about an alien couple stranded on earth waiting to be rescued. In order to survive, they assimilate into American culture, raise a teenage daughter and live suburban lives. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the home movie montage of the family with Paul Simon's song, Kodachrome, playing in the back. This movie will never get old. 

The Godfather: Part II goes into the history of the Corleone family and their move from Italy to New York in the early 1900's. Fun fact, back in that day, Italians were called WOPs, as in Without Papers. No one can nay say the Godfather movies, and like Scarface, it shows another aspect of immigration. That one part full of violence and crime that everyone sweeps under the carpet because that's not an image immigrants should be known for. While I agree, still, there's no reason to be ashamed of it or try to hide it.
How are you going to have a list of movies about immigration and not have Superman in it? Like the Coneheads, this one is pretty self explanatory. Baby Kal-El is sent to earth by his parents to carry on the legacy of his people as his entire planet is destroyed. He's raised by a mid-west couple and is instilled with the familial values to use his gifts for good, rather than evil. 

Most folks know that I have been using the "Superman is an immigrant"analogy for years. And when the new reboot came out last year, that aspect of his character got a nice little push because immigration reform was such a debated topic. So whether you like the 70s or current version, he is still an immigrant. 

Charlie Chaplin's The Immigrant came out in 1917. That is a life time ago and immigration was just as different. The movie is pretty funny, but it isn't for everyone. I doubt many can appreciate what it took to make movies back then, let alone clever and hilarious ones. Again,  movie is self explanatory. If it peeks your interest, you can watch it on youtube.

An American Tail is one of those movies I saw as a kid. It never really sank in until I re-watched it years later and I had one of those, "ohhh yeah" moments. The story follows this Russian mouse as he travels to the US and tries to adapt to the culture shock he experiences. There's a bunch of cliches, but it's a kids movie, so eh. There were a bunch of sequels and while I didn't see all of them, I still enjoy the first one because these were done with old school animation. So that means everything was done by hand. 

Coming to America is one of those early films in which Eddy Murphy does that thing in which he plays multiple characters. It also features a young Arsenio Hall. Aside from being hilarious, there's two things you can take away after watching the movie. The differences in how the wealthy and the poor immigrate to the US. And how folks here in the US presume how people are if they come from a specific country. We Mexicans be clowning those of us that come from a rural/ranch life style. Looking down at people and what not. 

Born in East LA is another classic. In fact, it's one of those "you're not a Latino unless you've seen this movie" movie. The movie is hilarious and it was filmed in my neighborhood of Boyle Heights. While it has a comedic take on the issue of american citizens being deported to Mexico, it's an issue that has had a looooong history here in the US, and not just with Mexicans. 

*I couldn't find a GIF from the movie. So here's Jean Claude Van Damn punching a guy in the stomach
I first saw Alien Nation after getting into the tv show it produced. The movie revolves around this idea that an Alien race comes to earth and slowly but surely, integrate to our way of life. The story follows a human cop and an Alien cop who are assigned to police the secret world of the Newcomers (the aliens). From there, it turns into a standard buddy cop movie and some parallels can be made into the way immigrant communities stick to their own when living in a foreign land.

Describes as "E.T. rides the underground railroad,"(rolling my eyes) Brother from Another Planet is another over looked movie that isn't one anyones radar. The story is that this alien lands on earth and takes the form of a Black Man, but he is mute. It's a great movie and still holds up, despite being 29 years old. Of course the movie touches on issues of assimilation, urban decay, identity etc. You can see the whole thing on you tube.

Bonus points if you saw the classic Juan Gabriel movie, Del Otro Lado del Puente. Released in 1980 in Mexico, the movies follows a suuuuuper young juanga as he crosses over to the US for a better life. He ends up singing during the evenings to pay his way through college. After that, it's just Juanga singing his jams in 80s LA. And it also has those reacquiring themes of assimilation, being in a foreign land yada yada yada.

So does the whole movies about immigration that aren't about immigration thing make sense now? Good, cause if you have some movies you wanna share, pleeeeeease do so. Other wise I'm just going to keep listing movies about aliens and Juan Gabriel.