The opening scenes of the movie are set in New York harbour, where we first see the Statue of Liberty as the boat comes in.
The Immigrant’s American Dream
In American mythology, the U.S. is, as the national anthem puts it, “the land of the free / And the home of the brave!”
It’s a land in which in which all citizens are thought of as being equal and free. As Thomas Jefferson wrote
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Declaration of Independence, 1776).
The American dream is encapsulated in the idea that every individual American should have an equal right to become her or his best self. Citizens have the right to try to realize their hopes.
Historically, a key element of the American myth of a land of hope and freedom is the idea that America gave welcome to the world’s migrants. For many foreigners, the idea of American freedom has been a magnet attracting them to migrate to the United States.
New York’s Statue of Liberty is a famous icon that represented welcome to the 19th century immigrants who later became American citizens.
For generations, America has served as a beacon of hope and freedom for those outside her borders, and as a land of limitless opportunity for those risking everything to seek a better life. (U.S. Congressman Spencer Bachus).
Some would argue that the Congressman’s story of American welcome is a myth (i.e., it’s a lie). Chinese people might have thought that, historically. For example, just as America was welcoming masses of European migrants in the 19th and 2oth century, it enforced measures to exclude Chinese migrants, including most famously the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). So, the idea that all men were created equal didn’t include Chinese people (until 1943).
Just as the Statue of Liberty is an icon of the myth of welcome to the land of the free, New York’s Ellis island and San Francisco’s Angel island immigration prison are historical symbols of one of the gaps in American equality.
Let’s remind ourselves of the characters and then have some discussions.
- What is The Immigrant about?
- What happens (what is the story)?
- What genre/s is/are used for this movie?
Eva and Magda escape poverty in Poland, after the first World War. They come to New York by boat and try to pass through the immigration process on Ellis island.
The immigration guards were going to detain Eva and return her to Europe because something happened on the boat journey that suggests she is a woman of low morals. Her uncle and aunt who live in New York have not come to collect them, so the immigration guards believe Eva has nowhere to stay and no legal way of supporting herself.
Eva’s sister Magda is detained in the Ellis Island hospital because her illness might be contagious. The only way to get her out is to pay a lot of money as a bribe.
Magda meets Bruno Weiss from the Travelers Aid Society who offers to help get her into New York. It turns out he runs burlesque shows and girls and makes extra money from selling booze (alcohol). Bruno gives Eva food and board and work, but the work is prostitution.
- Eva becomes a prostitute. Hao bu hao? Why/why not?
- If Magda was your sister, what would you do?
At the end of the movie Bruno takes Eva back to Ellis island. Eva talks with Bruno before she rescues Magda by paying a bribe with the money her aunt gave her.
Bruno tells all her all the bad things he did to her and says, ‘forget about me, I’m nothing’. He refuses to go with them to California. Eva tells him he’s not nothing and kisses his hands.
What did he do to or for Eva? Was he right or wrong to do so? Who is right? Is Bruno, as he says, “worth nothing”?
The Immigrant is about the American Dream, the dream that American is a land of opportunity and freedom for immigrants. The statue of Liberty in the first images of the movie are a symbol of that dream, and Orland/Emile tells the immigrants on Ellis island to keep believing in their dream.
In recent years, political talk about migrants has made the American Dream for migrants seem to be ‘fake news’.
Making American Great Again: some strands of Trump’s political discourse
“When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (Trump, 2016).
- Before the election he demanded a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
- Trump claimed to have seen thousands of people cheering the 9/11 attacks in northern New Jersey, “where you have large Arab populations”
- Trevor Noah responds to the President
During a discussion about migrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, Trump fumed: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
Trump’s views on immigrants. Hao bu hao? Wei shenme?