10 Classic Movies That Had Us Rooting for Immigrants

Yes, there are legal and connotative distinctions between refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, émigrés, migrants, political exiles and expats. But for this cinematic review, those distinctions are irrelevant. Our protagonists who were compelled or forced to leave their homes in any country for any reason to make a better life for themselves and their families in a new-to-them country are being celebrated.

*Spoilers ahead.*

The Godfather
Nothing more can be said about the greatest film of all time that hasn’t been said for the last fifty years. The Godfather was the first movie that ever had me rooting for the bad guys like they were the good guys. To this day I’m still rooting for the mafioso protagonists and against every WASP-y bigot that crossed their path.

Like the Corleones I am Catholic in a country that seems as simultaneously Protestant as it does secular. Like their consigliere Tom Hagen, I am a Kraut Mick. But as a third or fourth-generation McKraut I’m really just an American mutt.

The Sicilian immigrant who came to the US as a child builds an American empire and reigns as one of the five New York crime families in the 1940s and 50s. But in order to protect his youngest son, who avenged an assassination attempt on the father’s life by murdering those behind it, Don Corleone sends his son to Sicily as an American refugee. We are rooting for Michael Corleone as he seeks safety, finds love and survives another betrayal.

Godfather II
The second greatest film of all time takes us back to the beginning of the Corleone empire. After Don Ciccio murdered his family, 10-year-old Vito Andolini is smuggled to the US and taken in by distant relatives where he will be safe from retribution for his father’s perceived slight of the mafia don — a slight that got every member of the family killed.

Andolini arrives in the US during The Good Years and it is here that he builds his American dream. We suspend our morality and champion his trajectory.

An American Tail
Kids’ cartoons are a double-edged sword. They’re not in it for the message. They’re in it for the bright lights and flashing colors. And annoying music. But for better or worse, while they’re doped up on TV they sponge hard.

I remember liking An American Tail when I was a kid. I don’t remember thinking that anti-immigrant rhetoric was cruel and rooted in racism. I don’t remember consciously connecting anti-Semitic dots to the Diary of Anne Frank, (which we were reading in school around that time.) I just wanted the good guy to be safe. And maybe that early messaging matters as much as the experts say it does.

The Sound of Music
One of the weight-bearing pillars of Hollywood is WWII movies. And one of its most enduring classics is this musical turned movie about immigrants illegally crossing a sovereign border to flee the Nazi annexation of Austria.

Where would happily ever after have taken place for the Von Trapp family if they didn’t have Switzerland to flee to? Opposing the Anschluss with his life, Captain Von Trapp became a political dissident and refugee.

Even without the singing, Julie Andrews’ Alpine dancing is an iconic tableau vivant synonymous with achieving freedom.

Gran Torino
This newer classic is more than just curmudgeon-y Clint Eastwood growling Get off my lawn. As meme-able as that is, the beauty of the movie is his Hmong neighbors in the Midwest, their complexity, their culture and how those coalesce to create Eastwood’s character arc.

An old man who failed to do right by his family redeems himself by saving another family who has adopted him as an honorary grandfather of sorts. Eastwood’s directorial and story-telling savvy is always understated but plot-driven. This cross-cultural multigenerational story showcases the true American beauty of diversity without preaching it.

The film received some criticism for its criminal portrayal of Asians as some members of the extended Vang Lor family are gang-affiliated. But this criminal periphery is juxtaposed with the dominant and overarching good of the whole family, represented with charm and nuance and growth by the brother-sister duo. I don’t know that they needed a martyr to save them but we are cheering for the future of these first-generation Americans.

All rights © Touchstone Pictures

Green Card
When white people exploit immigration visas it’s romantic! Especially if they’re French and have a French accent. And their sham marriage is worth the risk — he gets to live in the US and she gets an amazing apartment in the city. Everyone wins. But when anyone trying to leave a “shithole country” for a better life and brighter future they’re derided as greedy and opportunistic.

It almost seems like the less someone “needs” to come to the US the more cavalier we are about their law-breaking. And we make a rom-com out of it. Imagine pitching a script about an illegal immigrant from El Salvador marrying a gorgeous New Yorker for American citizenship. How many studios do you think would lap that up and slap such a tongue-in-cheek title on it?

This rom-com makes the list not because it’s particularly well done but because it highlights the disparity between whom we call immigrants and whom we call people. Mexicans are rapists but Frenchmen can be so beguiling while they navigate onerous bureaucracy in order to game the system — ultimately, for love.

The Joy Luck Club
Author Amy Tan collaborated in writing the screenplay for the same-named film adaptation of her novel. It is overwrought and over scripted in places but an elaborate multigenerational story of family legacy with eight main characters is a feat to complete within two hours.

The different traumas and tragedies four Chinese immigrant mothers endured in their home country affect their American-born daughters in myriad ways.

Their San Francisco lives are a stark contrast to what they and their own mothers both survived and died from. The mothers find solace in mahjong and each other. Their daughters are their catharsis, their hopes for healing in a less patriarchal country that rewards individualism.

We are hoping both mothers and daughters find what they’re looking for.

The Kite Runner
Unlike the Joy Luck Club, which really was as good as the book, the Kite Runner somehow lacked the deeply personal pathos of the book. But it is another fraught tale of first-generation duality and a parent’s redemption through their adult child.

Author Khaled Hosseini’s survivor’s guilt is tangible in the novel. But nothing prepared me for the brutal rape of the Hazara servant boy or the wealthy Pashtun best friend/master that watched it happen, failed to intervene and never sought justice.

He grows up to immigrate to the US from Afghanistan where he becomes a successful doctor and finds love in the Afghani expat community in California. But he lives in the shadow of his own shame. His self-loathing torments us until he returns to Afghanistan and finds an unexpected path for forgiveness that finally releases us from the guilt we’ve been carrying with him.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
First-generation kids tell amazing and hilarious stories. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson saw Nia Vardalos’ one-woman show and loved it so much they made a movie out of it. No American ever looked at Windex the same way.

Cuisine is normally our first foray into a culture we are unfamiliar with. But Vardalos showers us with food, dance and humor from the time she was a “swarthy six-year-old with sideburns” to her quest to make her traditional Greek family fall in love with the American man she’s fallen in love with.

Gangs of New York
The turn-of-the-century Irish Catholic immigrants are easy underdogs to cheer for. They’re impoverished and idolatrous papists inferior to the Protestant nativists in every way.

Our protagonist is has grown from a frightened orphan to a man set on avenging his father who was murdered in front of him — not unlike the Godfather and Godfather II.

We want vengeance. And we suspend our morality again for the greater good — the full-circle closure for one immigrant family fighting to survive in their new country.

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