A Lens on the American Character

TV and movies are at their best when they tell the stories of outsiders and immigrants

I believe in America.” Against a black screen and in a distinctly foreign accent, those are the words that open The Godfather. In a key moment in one of the sequels, the young boy who will grow up to be the title character rushes, with the rest of the Sicilian passengers, to a boat’s edge in time to see the Statue of Liberty at the mouth of the Hudson. It’s easy to forget that Vito Corleone is an immigrant or that Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind is the daughter of one; immigration is such an intrinsic part of the American story that we barely notice it’s part of American movies. In that other famous cinematic treatise on American immigration, Casablanca, Rick’s Café Américain is an African way station during World War II for humanity’s loose ends, all trying to get to that promised land for which the café is named. In one scene the saloon’s hard-bitten owner reveals himself to be the “sentimentalist” that others suspect when he rigs his own roulette wheel so a young refugee couple can win what they need for exit papers to the States. Maybe because he’s such a softy, more likely because he doesn’t have the penetrating wisdom of a Republican presidential nominee, Rick neglects to question the couple as to their religious affiliation or terrorist intentions. All he knows is that they will risk everything to reach America.

All of the articles and photos from our special Immigration Issue are available in the October 2016 issue, on newsstands now.

More than any cultural force other than jazz and rock and roll, American movies and television have defined America to the rest of the world and to every land where almost every American has his or her roots. The immigrant experience subliminally informs American film, from The Last of the Mohicans, in which everyone in the New World is an immigrant except for the last Mohican, to West Side Story, in which a New York Romeo and Juliet are doomed not by warring families but by battling ethnic tribes, to E.T., in which the ultimate immigrant gets stranded without a ticket home, to last year’s Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn, which finds an immigrant in the 1950s at the tipping point of her national identity, deciding in what home her heart truly lies. Meanwhile in our current era, when the issue of immigration has become so politically combustible, television has moved the immigrant story more and more front and center, even as the Great L.A. Immigrant Story has yet to be made; TV immigrants who used to provide more laughs than insight—Desi Arnaz’s Cuban bandleader on I Love Lucy or Andy Kaufman’s mechanic of undetermined origin on Taxi—now dominate the story lines. A Pakistani American’s journey through the U.S. justice system hovers between subtext and übertext in HBO’s crime drama The Night Of. In Seth MacFarlane’s recently canceled animated series Bordertown, virtually everyone is an insider and outsider at once, and in Fresh Off the Boat, a Taiwanese family struggles for the same presence that, both in society and on our screens, Lori Tan Chinn finds so elusive for Asian Americans in Orange Is the New Black. Most prominent is Master of None, where immigration is the overt subject matter, particularly when it involves the divide between foreign-born fathers and their American-born children, and just because sometimes the camera’s pan picks up the dirty looks that the show’s star, Aziz Ansari, gets with his white girlfriend on a trip to Nashville.

As often as not, American television and movies have been the creation of outsiders. In the 1950s, when Stirling Silliphant, Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, and Paddy Chayefsky—each barely a generation removed from Canada, Poland, Hungary, and the Ukraine—made TV the writers’ medium that it has been ever since, they produced portraits of American life indelible enough to become archetypes: Chayefsky’s hard-boiled urban naturalism, Caesar’s and Kovacs’s slices of a peculiarly American comic anarchy, and Silliphant’s cross-country road trip on Route 66. In so doing, these scripters advanced a template struck by immigrant filmmakers who often realized their own American dreams in movies about the American dream. Many of the character actors in Casablanca were actual refugees who had fled a Europe in turmoil, as was director Michael Curtiz. That early scene of the Statue of Liberty in The Godfather Part II replicates the finale of Elia Kazan’s 1963 America America, in which a young Greek flees his country’s deprivation and tumult; America America was Kazan’s filmic autobiography, made after his 1950s trio A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden invented modern film acting and, with it, a new way of considering the modern American psyche. Charlie Chaplin, America’s first superstar, was from England, arriving on our shores at the age of 19; one of his earliest silent pictures, in 1917, was called The Immigrant. Directors Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, William Wyler, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and Mike Nichols all came from elsewhere, depicting their new country in films like Modern Times, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Apartment, Advise & Consent, and The Graduate.

Related: Say it Loud: We’re Here and We’re Proud

In the past few decades the culture’s perspective on the immigrant story has subtly shifted in a way that mirrors the audience. The context in which that story is told is characterized as much by alienation as idealism, with American movies finally noting that the country south of us is something m0re than a sleepy land of those treacherous Mexicans who populated The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the ’40s and The Wild Bunch in the ’60s. Mexico has been a dramatic locus where identity, aspiration, and displacement intersect in pictures like The Border, El Norte, Lone Star, and the upcoming Desierto. Irish resettlement in America has been the subject of relatively recent films like In America as well as Brooklyn and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, which made bloody clear how hard-won and violent that resettlement was a century before the great-grandson of an Irish immigrant became president of the United States. Like The Godfather or, most conspicuously, Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of Scarface, Gangs of New York confirmed that immigration can bring with it the dangerous people Donald Trump has so helpfully warned us about, though it’s also worth pointing out an uncomfortable and subversive truth, at least as the movies see things: It isn’t dangerous men who corrupt America but rather America that corrupts them, dangling before them materialist dreams that can’t be realized within the law and that prove empty outside the law.

What filmmakers and TV writers sometimes grasp more readily than political candidates is that “America” has been less about its borders or traditions or common language than about its animating promise, a vibrant vision that bestows American-ness on whoever believes in it enough. If this contention is under fire in our present-day politics, in many of our best movies and TV shows it struggles to reconcile itself with reality’s jagged edges and transcend them. In John Ford’s 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath, the immigrants are Americans themselves, displaced by their own country and wandering its barren real estate to find an American promise that has vanished from under them. They’re emigrating from one version of a promise that’s been broken to another version of a promise yet to be kept. No wall built by any politician holds them back because the country’s promise is airborne, traveling on a visa of dust.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Los Angeles magazine.