Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Americanah-- What Happens When Migrants Move In

The migrant crisis in Europe keeps growing. Today alone, some 20,000 refugees fleeing from Middle Eastern conflicts are trying to pass through Austria. Like the rest of the world, I have no smart ideas on how to solve a problem of this magnitude. But there’s no question that the fate of displaced persons has been a part of our global history from time immemorial.

Which means, of course, that scores of movies have been made about people who cross borders in time of duress, and end up finding themselves strangers in a strange land. We Americans are, whether or not we’d like to admit it, a nation of immigrants, and for the moment I’ll confine myself to films that detail the stresses and strains of coming to America.

Yes, Coming to America is -- as those with long memories know -- the title of an Eddie Murphy comedy about an African king who visits our shores to find a bride. (It was also the subject of a precedent-setting lawsuit by humorist Art Buchwald, who proved in a court of law that Paramount Pictures had lifted his original script treatment, without compensation.) But I’m not concerned today with the notion of visits by foreign potentates. I want to confine myself here to movies in which desperate people cross the ocean in search of a new life.

One such film was made by the great, though controversial, Elia Kazan, who was born in what was then called Constantinople, Turkey, of Anatolian Greek parents. His America America (1963), based on his own novel, is a loose dramatization of the life of his uncle, who traveled from Anatolia to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to escape the grinding poverty of his homeland. Along the way, the hero loses his nest egg, survives some life-or-death encounters, and changes his destination. It’s not until the very end of the film that he sees the Statue of Liberty rise before him in New York harbor.

I’m a great fan of the charming 1975 indie, Hester Street, in which an arrival in Manhattan makes all the difference in the life of a Jewish immigrant family from Eastern Europe. Jake has preceded his wife to the Goldene Medina (Yiddish for “Golden Land”) by several years, in order to establish a toehold in his new country. By the time wife and son arrive, Jake’s a stylish gent who’s enjoying his new freedoms on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Poor Gittel, with her old-world ways, quickly feels she’s not entirely welcome. How she handles this sticky situation is what the movie is all about.

Much more recently, there’s Amreeka (2009), the rare Palestinian movie that is less about Middle Eastern political issues than about adapting, both joyfully and painfully, to life in the United States. This is another film I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Which brings me to a major 2013 novel I suspect will make an important movie. It’s called Americanah, by award-winning Nigerian émigré Chinamanda Ngozi Adichie. Its two main characters -- bright, middle-class young people -- leave their homeland, he for England and she for the United States. It’s a love story, but also a tale about the meaning of blackness in countries where skin color helps determine destiny, for better or for worse. I’ve heard Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar-winner for Twelve Years a Slave,  has signed on for a role that would capitalize on her gloriously ebony complexion. Once upon a time, the elegant and talented Nyong’o would have been wholly shut out of Hollywood glamour roles. Now she’s the new face of Lancôme cosmetics, and let’s hope the sky’s the limit.


  1. My goodness, Lupita Nyong’o is an attractive woman. I wish her all the luck in the world in her career. This sounds like a terrific vehicle for her. A few more "foreigners adapting to life in the US" movies: The Terminal with Tom Hanks. Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams.

  2. I remember both films fondly. The Terminal, Steven Spielberg's whimsical and inventive film about a stateless eastern European holed up at JFK Airport, is a special favorite of mine, and perhaps I'll write more about it in the days to come. Thanks, as always, Mr. C.