Robin Williams talks to Maria Conchita Alonso in a scene from “Moscow On The Hudson,” one of the most interesting movies ever made about immigration. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)
It’s not surprising many filmmakers have viewed immigration as a rich source of storytelling. To explore this topic, I have put together a list of the 10 Most Interesting Immigration Movies of All-Time.
None of the films on this list are only about immigration but all use it to explore sad, funny or dramatic events. Opinions may differ, of course, but these films each use immigration in interesting ways to entertain, deliver a message or simply tell a good story. There are no spoilers below. Those looking for the subgenre of immigrants and crime can check out Scarface and The Godfather Part II.
10) A Better Life (2011). An immigrant here illegally attempts to earn a living and reconnect with his son. Why it’s interesting: The movie dramatizes what many policymakers and commentators on immigration forget – people will do almost anything and take almost any risk for the sake of their children.
9) In America (2002). Loosely based on director Jim Sheridan’s life, Irish immigrants come to New York and it doesn’t look like they are here legally. Why it’s interesting: The film shows that European immigrants face many of the same challenges as immigrants from other parts of the world. It is one of the few films to show immigration to America from a child’s perspective.
8) The Big Sick (2017). Written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and based on their real-life romance, The Big Sick tells the story of a stand-up comic, born in Pakistan, who alienates his family by falling in love with an American-born woman. Why it’s interesting: The movie deals with what can be the most important decision in a person’s life – who (or whether) we will marry. In the case of immigrants – and sometimes natives – that decision carries the risk of losing one’s family if parents disapprove of marrying outside the family’s religion or culture. The Big Sick is also one of the few mainstream movies in America to depict the life of a Muslim immigrant.
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, husband and wife co-writers of “The Big Sick.” (Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
7) Avalon (1990). This story of a Jewish immigrant family starts in the early part of the 20th century and portrays their struggles to succeed in an American culture that over time seems to place a different value on family. Years before Elijah Wood starred in The Lord of the Rings, he played a boy in the movie Avalon who listens to his immigrant grandfather tell the story of arriving in Baltimore on the Fourth of July. Why it’s interesting: Much like Namesake, Avalon dramatizes the tension between the old and the new but in a time period few Americans today remember.
6) Namesake (2006). Based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, a young Indian couple builds a life and raises a family in America. Why it’s interesting: The tension in the film between immigrants and their children raised in the U.S. mirrors real-life dramas that play out daily across America. Similar themes are present in the U.K.-based film Bend It Like Beckham.
5) Well-Founded Fear (2000). A documentary by filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini (see below) that depicts the process of asylum decision-making through the eyes of both government officers and the individuals who are interviewed in an attempt to obtain asylum in the United States. Why it’s interesting: “Well-Founded Fear grew out of the idea of a series shot around the world about refugees and migration after the fall of the Berlin wall,” Michael Camerini told me in an interview. “We discovered the world was here, and we could tell that story from inside the INS Asylum offices. We sat in on 50 cases, then filmed an additional 50 cases. It’s the only time independent filmmakers have ever been able to document the process.” The film contains this quote from an asylum officer: “That’s what this job is about. You make a decision about people’s futures.”
Farida, an Algerian mother, recounted the fear that led her to flee to America and seek asylum in the groundbreaking documentary “Well-Founded Fear.”The Epidavros Project
4) Gran Torino (2008). Clint Eastwood plays a gruff old man who sees his life and neighborhood change. The film features the classic line “Get off my lawn.” Why it’s interesting: The near-perfect script shows Eastwood getting involved in the lives of his Hmong neighbors in a surprising way.
Actor Bee Vang, actor-director Clint Eastwood and actress Ahney Her at the premiere of the film “Gran Torino.” (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
3) District 9 (2009). At its core, the movie is about one’s ability to empathize with someone different from ourselves. “The scenes at the beginning of the film featuring poor local residents who advocate killing ‘them,’ burning their businesses, and kicking them out were based on actual footage from the year before in which real people rather than actors were talking about the immigrants in their communities – not the extraterrestrial crustaceans,” according to Sasha Polakow-Suranksy, author of Go Back To Where You Came From. Why it’s interesting: One of the only science fiction movies ever made where the aliens come not as invaders (Independence Day) or as a lonely individual (E.T.) but as a large group of refugees.
People in line to attend the South African premiere of the 2009 movie “District 9,” which tells the story of a group of alien refugees who land in South Africa. (Photo by Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
2) Moscow on the Hudson (1984). Robin Williams plays a Soviet musician who defects – in a department store – during the Cold War and encounters other immigrants who find the road to the American Dream can be bumpy. The film earns bonus points for reciting part of the Declaration of Independence and the oath used in naturalization ceremonies. Why it’s interesting: It would be difficult to find a more conservative, pro-American movie – if one defines conservatism as Ronald Reagan did, that America is a special place where anyone, regardless of place of birth, can live free in a land of opportunity and be welcomed.
1) How Democracy Works Now (2010). “Without question How Democracy Works Now is the best documentary film series on government ever produced. There is nothing even close,” I wrote in an earlier article. The series of 12 films by Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini is based on 1,500 hours of footage – the equivalent of more than 187 8-hour days. It shows immigration battles in and out of Congress and local fights in Iowa and Arizona. Why it’s interesting: As I wrote previously, “Viewers are inside the room as key Senate staffers meet with one another and their Senators to craft legislation. We are there when advocacy groups across the ideological spectrum meet with Senators and Congressional staff. In short, viewers go where they have never gone before.”
The late Senator Ted Kennedy with his key legislative aide Esther Olavarria. Esther is featured prominently in the 12-part documentary “How Democracy Works Now.”The Epidavros Project