Films Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The images of ethnic immigrants in Hollywood feature films change with changing attitudes and also help in producing changes in their audience’s attitudes. For the most part, ethnic images early on were used for comic effect, but over the years the immigrants’ images and their plights have been more realistically and sympathetically portrayed on the screen.

Of the films made during the early silent era only a few dealt explicitly with immigration. One of the first was Italian, The (film)The Italian (1915), which offered a realistic portrayal of Italian immigrants pursuing the "American Dream"[American Dream]American Dream. In the film Beppo Donnetti travels to America to make enough money to satisfy his fiancé’s father and have her join him in New York. They have a son, who becomes ill; and Beppo does not have enough money for medicine. After he fails to get money and support from Corrigan, a local politico, he gets into trouble and spends five days in jail. When he is released, he finds out that his son has died. So much for the American Dream.FilmsFilms[cat]COMMUNICATIONS;Films[01800][cat]FILM;Films[01800][cat]CULTURE;Films[01800]

Charles Chaplin, CharlesChaplin’s Jewish immigrants;in films[films]Immigrant, The (film)The Immigrant (1917) took a slightly different tack. Although his character’s ethnicity is not identified, Chaplin’s Little Tramp has been identified by some critics as Jewish. Chaplin himself was not Jewish, but he always refused to deny being Jewish. In what is a comedy with a happy ending there are, nevertheless, realistic touches, especially dealing with Ellis Island officials, that are critical of the United States.

Another silent film of note is Ford, JohnJohn Ford’s Four Sons (film)Four Sons (1928), a film dealing with the problems a Bavarian mother faces in her hometown when one of her sons, who has emigrated to the United States, fights for the Americans in World War I. The film is interesting not only because it has little in common with Ford’s later films but also because it presents a cultural clash from a non-American point of view.

At the end of the silent era Jazz Singer, The (film)The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Jolson, AlAl Jolson in blackface, appeared. The plot involves a young Jew who does not want to follow in his cantor father’s footsteps, but desires instead to appear in a secular world of show business. The film, like several others featuring Jews, involves cultural conflicts and the gradual movement away from past traditions.

Early Sound Era

Where Is My Child? Where Is My Child? (film)(1937) Jewish immigrants;in films[films]continued the theme of Jewish travails and suffering in the immigration experience. In this film a widowed Jewish mother, destitute and newly arrived in New York City, places her son in an orphanage. After he is adopted, she regrets her decision and then spends the next twenty years of her life searching for her son. Although there is a happy ending, the film demonstrates that there is a price to be paid for the advantages of living in the United States: Health, family ties, and religion all are weakened.

In a lighter vein the Marx brothersMarx Brothers’ film Monkey Business (film)Monkey Business (1931) presents the brothers as stowaways on an American-bound ship. Although the brothers are not identified as Jews, the humor in the film, which is decidedly Jewish, pokes fun not only at the immigration procedures at Ellis Island, where the brothers impersonate Maurice Chevalier, but at the conventions and values of white Anglo-Saxon American society.

My Girl Tisa My Girl Tisa (film)(1948) starred Lilli Palmer as a young immigrant who works hard to save money to bring her father to the United States, only to be duped by her travel agent, exploited, and intimidated by the owner of the Sweatshops;in films[films]sweatshop in which she works. She is threatened with deportation before she is rescued by none other than President Roosevelt, TheodoreTheodore Roosevelt at Ellis Island. There she also miraculously meets her father. The film is essentially a comedy, but it offer at least a superficial exploration of problems related to Ellis Island and immigration procedures, such as the fear of being deported, language problems, tough working conditions, and political bosses who exploit their constituents.

The many Latin American immigrants;in films[films]Latin Americans who have immigrated to the United States have inspired a number of films about border crossings. One of the first of these is Border Incident (film)Border Incident (1949). A noir film about Smuggling of immigrantssmuggling and exploiting illegal immigrants, it focuses on how undocumented aliens are knifed, robbed, and abandoned by their smugglers, who are ultimately brought to justice. Wetbacks (film)Wetbacks (1956) also deals with smuggling aliens into the United States but has them arriving on fishing vessels. Once again, the smugglers are apprehended.

The most upbeat of the immigration-themed films during this period was Norwegian immigrants;in films[films]I Remember Mama (film)I Remember Mama (1948) about a family of Norwegian immigrants living in San Francisco, California. Most of the action in the film occurs after 1910 and involves matriarch Marta Hanson’s struggles with a child’s illness, a son’s struggle to finance his education, and various problems with her extended family, which includes a cantankerous Uncle Chris. Narrated by Marta’s novelist daughter, the film tends toward sentimentalism but was nevertheless an enormous hit with both audiences and critics and inspired a popular television series of the same name.

The 1970’s and Later

There were few significant films about immigration during the 1960’s, but beginning with the 1970’s there were dozens of films involving not only Jews, Mexicans, and Italians but also Indians, Hondurans, Iranians, and Swedes.

Perhaps the best 1970’s film about Jewish immigrants is Silver, Joan MicklinJoan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street (film)Hester Street (1975) about life in the Jewish ghetto of the lower East Side of New York City. In the film, Jake comes to New York and is “Americanized,” abandoning his Jewish traditions. When Gitl, his wife, joins him a year later, she brings with her the Old World clothes, hairstyle, traditions, and values, all of which Jake has renounced. Jake has fallen for Mamie, a Jewish woman who is also Americanized, and Gitl has to fend for herself. She and Jake take in a boarder named Bernstein, who studies the Torah and retains his Jewish culture. Gradually, he and Gitl, who divorces Jake, get together, but both couples are affected by their residence in the United States. Jake and Mamie are more obviously Americanized, but even Gitl and Bernstein are changing. The film deals realistically with Sweatshops;in films[films]sweatshops, the ghetto, poverty, and cultural conflicts, but it suggests that assimilation, though it entails the loss of some customs and traditions, is possible and even healthy.

Director Levinson, BarryBarry Levinson’s Avalon (film)Avalon (1990), an autobiographical film about his Baltimore;Jewish immigrantsJewish family from Eastern Europe, received more critical and box office support. The Krichinsky family settles in Baltimore, becomes prosperous because of their hard work, and eventually assimilates into American culture. Although the family is never explicitly identified as Jewish, Christmas gifts are called “holiday” gifts, and the grandmother’s funeral is conducted in a cemetery in which the star of David can be seen on gravestones. Although the family, whose members live close to one another, comes into money through their successful appliance store, some of its members become disillusioned with the "American Dream"[American Dream]American Dream. Two male members of the family change their names, signaling a break from the past. Growing affluence, changing attitudes toward the elderly, and the increasing influence of Televisiontelevision are responsible for the drift away fromold values and the past. However, what happens to the Krichinskys happened to the entire nation. One critic called the film, which received several awards, Levinson’s “bittersweet mosaic.” Levinson, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, won a Writer’s Guild of America award for best original screenplay.

Negative and Positive Stereotypes

Thanks Stereotyping, ethnic;in films[films]Italian immigrants;in films[films]to films such as Coppola, Francis FordFrancis Ford Coppola’s Godfather filmsGodfather trilogy (1972, 1974, and 1990), the Italian immigrant experience has become popularly associated with the Mafia;stereotypesMafia;in films[films]Mafia and Sicilians. After the first Godfather film was released in 1972, there were many protests about the anti-Italian feelings that it was alleged to have created. The second film describes the arrival of the Sicilian Corleone family in New York and concerns the family’s rise to gangland prominence in the United States. The films depict poverty in the Italian ghettos, clashes between Italian and Anglo-American cultures, police corruption, and political patronage. The films garnered many awards, including Oscars for best picture, actor, supporting actors, screenplay, and director, and the first film was rated as one of the best one hundred films by the American Film Institute.

Corleone family posing during the wedding scene early in the first Godfather film. The Godfather, Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) is the second man from the right. One of the acknowledged strengths of the Godfather films is their rich depictions of Italian American families.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

After becoming settled in America, Italian immigrants encountered problems not only in assimilation, but also in exploitation: Blood Red (film)Blood Red (1988) recounts the difficulties Italians faced in Northern California. Wait Until Spring, Bandini (film)Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1990), focuses on a family’s struggles in 1925 Colorado. Tarantella (film)Tarantella (1995) depicts a different challenge: how assimilated Italian Americans become reconciled to their Italian pasts. Director Scorsese, MartinMartin Scorsese, whose own body of work has presented a kind of kaleidoscopic history of the entire Italian immigrant experience, has called Italian director Crialese, EmanueleEmanuele Crialese’s Nuovomondo (film)New World, The (film)Nuovomondo (2009; released as The New World in the United States) thefilm that best balances the Old World values of Sicily against the New World of the United States. Crialese’s film depicts the superstitions of Sicily and the rigorous Ellis Island tests to determine just who is “fit” to pass through the “Golden Door.”

The Scandinavians, Irish, and Chinese immigrants;in films[films]Chinese have been more fortunate than the Italians in the ways in which their emigration experiences have been portrayed on the screen. Perhaps because Tan, AmyAmy Tan’s novel Joy Luck Club, The (Tan)The Joy Luck Club (1989) was a best seller being widely read in book clubs, the film adapted from her book in 1993 was a successful rendering of the fates of four Chinese women who immigrated to the United States. Their emotional and cultural “baggage” is reflected in the relationships they have with their daughters, who have assimilated into the American mainstream.

The Manions of America Manions of America, The (film)(1981) Irish immigrants;in films[films]is the “rags-to-riches” story of an immigrant who left Ireland during the potato famine and established himself and his family in a new country. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise appeared in a similar story in Far and Away (film)Far and Away (1992). Not all the films about Irish immigrants were as positive. Gangs of New York (film)Gangs of New York (2002), Scorsese, MartinMartin Scorsese’s violent film about rival gangs in New York City’s Five Corners, depicts the grinding poverty, the political exploitation of the Irish, and their forced induction into the Union Army during the Civil War.

Jim Sheridan, JimSheridan’s In America (film)In America (also 2002) focuses on modern immigrants from Ireland to the United States Canada;as entry route to United Statesthrough Canada and offers viewers a more complex cast of characters. Despite some problems the family encounters, the film is ultimately uplifting. An example of stereotyping Stereotyping, ethnic;in films[films]Irish immigrants is provided by James Cameron’s ponderous Titanic (film)Titanic (1997), in which the Irish passengers traveling across the Atlantic in steerage are depicted as the good people, in sharp contrast to the their wealthy, snobbish, and ruthless Anglo-Saxon counterparts aboard the doomed passenger liner.

The Swedish immigrants;in films[films]Swedes may have fared best. Troell, JanJan Troell’s Emigrants, The (film)The Emigrants (1972) with a cast headed by Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, traces a family’s decision to leave Sweden through their eventual settling in Minnesota. Troell followed this film, which won major awards for acting and directing, with New Land, The (film)The New Land (1973). The latter film continued the family’s story of survival in their new land, where members of the family faced Indian attacks and were involved in the U.S. Civil War.

Border Settings

The U.S.-Mexican border has been the subject of many Hollywood films. The cowboy film hero Cassidy, HopalongHopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) appeared in Border Patrol (film)Border Patrol in 1943. However, the emphasis on exploitation switched to problems with American corruption at the border. For example, Richardson, TonyTony Richardson’s Border, The (film)The Border (1982) presents actor Jack Nicholson’s struggles with the criminal element within his own law-enforcement agency.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The (film)(2005) concerns racism within the U.S. Border Patrol. In this film a racist Border Patrol agent kills a Mexican attempting to cross into the United States illegally. The murdered man’s friend forces the killer to return his victim’s body to his hometown in Mexico. During their ensuing journey, the racist agent begins to comprehend the implications of his act and may even find redemption. The film is more concerned with the killer and the victim’s friend than it is with the actual burial ground, which may not be really found.

Under the Same Moon Under the Same Moon (film)(2007) also concerns the U.S.-Mexican border. However, this somewhat sentimental film, which resembles Central Station (1998) in its plot involving the reunion of a boy with a parent, is, despite some danger in crossing the border, a realistic look at the economic plight of undocumented aliens working in the United States and the courage and compassion of Mexicans. The evolving friendship between the boy and a cynical loner who helps him find his mother is one of the highlights of the film. Each proves willing to sacrifice himself for the other near the end of the film.

Culture Clashes

In a more somber vein, the cultural clash depicted in House of Sand and Fog (2003) is the tragic tale of an Iranian immigrants;in films[films]Iranian immigrant, played by Kingsley, BenBen Kingsley, who wants to live out the "American Dream"[American Dream]American Dream by buying a house being sold cheaply because of its unpaid taxes so he can “flip” it for a profit. His purchase, which is, strictly speaking, legal is at the expense of a young woman who thought she was inheriting the house free and clear. Her determination to regain the house and the Iranian’s desire to keep what is legally his results in the death of his son and the suicides of both him and his wife.

Another tragic film involving a cultural clash is director Eastwood, ClintClint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (film)Gran Torino (2009), which was overlooked by the Motion Picture Academy. The film features Eastwood as Walt, an eighty-year-old retiree and Korean War veteran whose speech is choked with ethnic slurs and misunderstandings. His neighbors are Hmong immigrants;in films[films]Hmong, the Southeast Asian hill people who aided the United States during the Vietnam War and are now assimilating to American ways. Eventually, Walt is drawn into the Hmong community and befriends the shy son who does not want to join a gang of Hmong hoodlums. After he catches the boy trying to steal his Gran Torino automobile, Walt takes him under his wing. He teaches the boy how to use tools, gets him a job, and teaches him how to “speak American”–that act is at once amusing, pathetic, and degrading. When members of the Hmong gang continue to harass his neighbors, Walt goes to their aid. The grateful Hmong community, with their food (including beer) and hospitality win Walt over. To free his neighbors from gang harassment, Waltwill not adopt the Hmong way, which would include violent revenge. Instead, he concocts a carefully planned scheme that induces the gang to gun him down when he has no weapon. As he lies in a Christ-like crucifixion pose, the police take the members of the gang away. At his funeral, members of his own estranged family sit on one side of the church; the Hmong, his extended family, fill the other side. In his will Walt leaves his Gran Torino to his surrogate son rather than to his spoiled granddaughter. Walt’s redemptive sacrifice saves the people he initially scorned.

While many of the immigration films focus on Ellis Island, the poverty of the ghettos, the exploitation of immigrants, and the problems of assimilation and do tend to stereotype immigrant groups, later films are more sympathetic and realistic in the ways in which individual immigrants are portrayed. The characters have different customs, but they are also real people with many of the same problems native-born Americans face.Films

Further Reading
  • Girgus, Sam B. America on Film: Modernism, Documentary, and a Changing America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Demonstrates how American films both reflect and produce stories about national ideologies and identities.
  • Hamilton, Marsha J., and Eleanore S. Black. Projecting Ethnicity and Race: An Annotated Bibliography of Studies on Imagery in American Film. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Indispensable, comprehensive guide to films about ethnicity and race, including immigration issues.
  • Mangione, Jerre, and Ben Morreale. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian-American Experience. New York: Harper, 1993. Interesting account of how post-World War II Hollywood films fueled prejudice against Italians by resurrecting the Italian Mafia image of the 1890’s.
  • Puleo, Stephen. The Boston Italians: A Story of Pride, Perseverance, and Paesani from the Year of the Great Immigration to the Present Day. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008. Touches on films about Italian immigrants.
  • Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Discusses how Jewish studio heads evaded the issue of anti-Semitism by eliminating Jews from the screen. They allowed Jews to play African Americans but not themselves.
  • Torranes, Thomas. The Magic Curtain: The Mexican-American Border in Fiction, Film, and Song. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2002. Contains an invaluable list of films dealing with the border crossing between Mexico and the United States.
  • Winokur, Mark. American Laughter: Immigrants, Ethnicity, and the 1930’s Hollywood Film Comedy. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996. Finds and discuses immigration and ethnic aesthetics in the films of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and William Powell/Myrna Loy films.

Border Patrol, U.S.

Born in East L.A.

Godfather trilogy

Green Card

I Remember Mama

The Immigrant


Melting pot theory

Rockne, Knute


Television and radio

Categories: History