9 of the best movies about American immigrants

From "Everything Everywhere All at Once" to "Scarface," these films show the lives of seekers of the American Dream

Published July 4, 2023 2:00PM (EDT)

Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in "Everything Everywhere All at Once" (Allyson Riggs/A24)
Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in "Everything Everywhere All at Once" (Allyson Riggs/A24)

Beginning in the 17th century, folks have immigrated to America for the promise of a better life, or for what they hope is a better quality of life. For many immigrants, jobs and economic opportunity are the greatest motivating factor, but full human rights, including education, health car, and providing for their children are also concerns. A number of refugees are escaping wars or ethnic cleansing or seek asylum because of dangerous situations in their homeland. Even global warming and climate change have driven individuals to emigrate to America.

But while the United States was founded on this Melting Pot philosophy, starting over for immigrants in America can be challenging. Getting to — or even into — America can be difficult, and once here, assimilation, with one foot in the old land and one foot in the new land, can also be stressful. 

There have been many films about émigrés, in genres ranging from comedies to dramas to documentaries ever since Charlie Chaplin's 1917 short, "The Immigrant." Elia Kazan's semiautobiographical 1963 feature, "America America," recounts "the legend of how [his] family first came to this country." In "Golden Door" (2006), a magical realism sequence has Sicilian peasant Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) imagining large carrots and olives, and is later showered with coins, signs of the bounty abroad. In contrast, "El Norte" (1983) depicts the dangers of crossing the border as a Guatemalan brother and sister crawl through a rat-infested sewer tunnel to arrive in the United States, where they are confronted with perhaps more than they can handle. 

What all of these films present are moving, human stories that showcase resilience and determination of immigrants who risk everything to come to America to realize their dreams. Here, in alphabetical order, are nine immigrant films you should watch to honor  Independence Day

"Brooklyn" (2015)
BrooklynBrooklyn (Fox Searchlight)
"Brooklyn" is director John Crowley's Oscar-nominated 2015 screen adaptation of Colm Tóibín's bestselling 2009 novel. Eilis Lacy (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates from Ireland to America in 1952. She is anxious and has a difficult journey, but as she arrives in Brooklyn, there is a sense of magic and wonder, which Ronan conveys with her marvelous expressions. (Eilis is a character who feels deeply.)
As she begins her new life, she is torn about the life she knew and left behind and the one she establishes in Brooklyn. Scenes contrasting the two countries illustrate this well. Things improve for Eilis when she meets and falls in love with an Italian, Tony (Emory Cohen), but life gets in the way when she is called back home to Ireland. "Brooklyn" chronicles Eilis' experiences trying to determine where she belongs with remarkable sensitivity. This is a superb, heartbreaking drama about both the meaning of home and the pull home has on a young woman finding her way in a new world. (Rent it on iTunes or Amazon).
"Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart" (1985)
Dim SumDim Sum (Criterion Collection)
"Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart" is Wayne Wang's modest 1985 drama about a widowed immigrant mother Mrs. Tam (Kim Chew) and her adult daughter, Geraldine (Laureen Chew, Kim's real-life daughter), navigating their relationship. As one character insists about Mrs. Tam, "You can take the girl out of Chinatown, but you can't take Chinatown out of the girl." And so begins a touching mother-daughter story where Mrs. Tam wants Geraldine to get married, but Geraldine worries about leaving her mother to live alone. Mrs. Tam is a traditionalist who only speaks in Chinese, but she understands English — except when Geraldine quizzes her for her citizenship exam. (After 40 years, Mrs. Tam wants to become an American.) Mrs. Tam is also preparing to return to her homeland as she is expecting to die soon.
Wang's film shows how the two worlds collide or overlap, especially when he features a Chinese rendition of the national anthem on the soundtrack. Mrs. Tam's neighbor May (Ida F.O. Chung), proclaims during a game of mahjongg, "In America, anything is possible," and wants her to watch "Dynasty," which is "just like a Chinese soap opera — full of sex, love and money." Likewise, when Geraldine and her uncle Tam (Victor Wong) can't cook a meal right, they go out and eat at McDonald's. Wang shows that reality can, indeed, be both bigger and smaller than the American Dream. (Stream on the Criterion Channel)


Michelle Yeoh in "Everything Everywhere All at Once" (Allyson Riggs/A24)
"Everything Everywhere All at Once" The Daniels' Oscar-winning juggernaut considers the "what if" idea as immigrant Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) 'verse jumps into alternate lives as she deals with the multiple stresses of a possible divorce from her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan); an audit by IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis); and her increasing estrangement from her lesbian daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu).
Evelyn sees the American Dream as being able to "do whatever we want," but she must first get over her feelings that "with every passing moment [she] could have made something of her life." Was leaving China, and disappointing her parents by marrying Waymond the right decision? "Everything Everywhere All at Once" shows not only the roads Evelyn did not take, but also the dreams she never followed, and how good her life could have been — especially when Waymond tells her, "In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you."  The Daniels' film stresses the importance of failure and letting go, because living up to the American Dream may not be all it is cracked up to be. (Stream it on Showtime).
"Hester Street" (1975)
Hester StreetHester Street (Cohen Media Group)
"Hester Street" is cowriter/director Joan Micklin Silver's classic immigrant film — a poignant examination of the Jewish community in New York's Lower East Side in 1896. Silver shows the differences between the old land and the new land as Yankl (Steven Keats), renamed Jake in America, tries to manage life with his "greenhorn" wife, Gitl (Carol Kane in an Oscar nominated performance), who has just arrived with their son Yossele (Paul Freedman) renamed Joey. Gitl wants to wear wigs or a kerchief on her head, but Jake insists women display their natural hair in America. Nevertheless, she sticks with her traditions, such as putting salt in Joey's pockets to ward off evil. When Mrs. Kavarsky (Doris Roberts) tightens a corset, she is fitting for Gitl, she advises, "You wanna be an American, you gotta hurt." It is a telling line because Gitl's marriage to Jake has gone stale since she has arrived; he has his sights on the wealthy and fashionable Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh).
"Hester Street" captures immigrant tensions as a peddler in the old country becomes Jake's boss in the new land, and one character complains about having to take a train to see a tree. Shot in black and white and largely in Yiddish, this is a feel-good feminist film that showcases immigrant lives with authenticity and features a highly satisfying denouement. (Stream it on MUBI, Kanopy, and the Cohen Media Channel).
In the HeightsAnthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in "In the Heights" (Warner Bros.)
Jon M. Chu's big screen version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's infectious high-energy musical is all about dreams for Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans — undocumented or assimilated — and other characters that populate the film's Washington Heights barrio in "far away Nueva York." Some characters have lottery dreams, others dream of getting away (even if that just means downtown), many are "scraping by," and still others dream of their homeland. They are powerless and powerful. As a character expresses, "We assert our dignity in small ways," emphasizing the little details that "tell the world we are not invisible."
Arguably the best musical number in "In the Heights" isn't the show-stopping "96,000," set in a community pool, but "Paciencia Y Fe" ("Patience and Faith") performed by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) about emigrating from Cuba to "the Washington Heights of Havana." She came because there was work but being fresh off the boat, and having to learn English, she hoped to become "better off than you were with the bird of La Vibora [Havana]." It's an emotional memory piece that features the lyrics, "I've spent my life/inheriting dreams from you," that emphasizes the film's core message: "There's no place like home." Alabanza! (Praise) Abulea Claudia! (Stream it on Max)
"Moscow on the Hudson" (1984)
Moscow on the HudsonActor Robin Williams as Vladimir Ivanoff and Cleavant Derricks as Lionel Witherspoon on the set of the Columbia Pictures movie " Moscow on the Hudson" in 1984. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
There is a scene late in director/cowriter Paul Mazursky's bittersweet, patriotic comedy-drama, set in a diner on Independence Day where characters from different countries repeat the Bill of Rights and the right to pursue happiness. The moment galvanizes Vladimir Ivanoff (Robin Williams), a self-pitying Russian circus musician who has defected in Bloomingdale's during a trip to New York. Everyone Vlad meets is from somewhere else, and like them, he has had to make adjustments to life in America. Williams taps into Vlad's melancholy as he befriends Lionel (Cleavant Derricks) – a Black man whose family illustrates the racism in the country and begins a romance with Lucia (Maria Conchita Alonso) – herself an Italian immigrant who becomes a citizen over the course of their relationship. "Moscow on the Hudson" illustrates the false sense of liberty Vlad has having the freedom to do whatever he wants. For him it is oddly paralyzing, and Mazursky's film, and Williams' soulful performance conveys that Catch-22 with aplomb. (Rent it on iTunes or Amazon).
"Nanny" (2022)
NannyAnna Diop in "Nanny" (Amazon Prime Video)
The American Dream literally becomes a nightmare for the undocumented Senegalese immigrant, Aisha (Anna Diop) in writer/director Nikyatu Jusu's flinty psychological horror film. Aisha gets a job caring for Rose (Rose Decker), the daughter of a wealthy white couple, Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector). She is saving the money she earns to bring her own son, Lamine (Jahleel Kamara), to New York to live, promising him snow like white cotton candy. However, Aisha has strange visions of Lamine and is haunted by episodes such as one where it is raining in her bedroom, or when she imagines spiders, snakes and other dangers. At a hair salon, her friend observes that the American Dream is, "You work until you die. But I'd rather be a slave in America than in Africa, because at least you see the money." But Aisha doesn't see the money; Amy does not pay Aisha the overtime she is owed. In addition, Amy's microaggressions and Adam's inappropriate behavior — he kisses her — are as unsettling as her experiences around water. This is a powerful allegory about oppression, and it features a remarkable performance by Diop. (Stream it on Prime Video).

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"Potato Dreams of America" (2021)
Potato Dreams of AmericaPotato Dreams of America (Dark Star Pictures)
Writer/director Wes Hurley's feature is based on the true events of his coming to America with this mother. (His story is also the subject of his documentary short "Little Potato" as well as a VR project.) In 1985 Vladivostok, young Potato (Hersh Powers) and his mother Lena (Sera Barbieri) — both have American accents — are miserable because there is no future and no independent thinking. Anywhere, they believe, is better than their "beloved motherland." Their only joy is watching American movies on a renegade TV channel. They want the "happy ending" that films like "Pretty Woman" offer, and that possibility comes when Lena responds to a mail order bride advertisement, and John (Dan Lauria), agrees to marry her.
Emigrating to Seattle, Potato (now played by Tyler Bocock, sporting a Russian accent) attends high school where his teacher is concerned that he is going to lose his beautiful culture. "Why do we want a melting pot when we can toss a salad?" she asks. But Potato bemoans that "No one lets me forget my past," wanting to immerse himself in American life and culture. (He is gay and repeatedly rents "The Living End" from his local video store.) "Potato Dreams of America" soon reveals that America provides a safe space for LGBTQ people whereas Potato's class in Russia believes the United States is full of "drugs, perverts and AIDS." The new country is one Potato and his mother wholeheartedly embrace, despite encountering different issues than the ones they faced at home. (Rent it on iTunes)
"Scarface" (1983)
ScarfaceActor Al Pacino stars in 'Scarface'. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Brian DePalma's 1983 grandiose gangster epic, a remake of the 1932 classic, opens with documentary footage of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which had 125,000 refugees leave Cuba for the U.S. Approximately 20% of them had criminal records. One of them is the fictional Tony Montana (a feral Al Pacino in arguably his most beloved performance). When he arrives in Miami, he claims to be a political prisoner, and he delivers an early speech railing against Communism which told him what to do, think and feel. After months of being detained, he buys his freedom by killing someone and ends up working in a restaurant. "I didn't come to the U.S. to break my back [washing dishes]," Tony insists, and he soon goes to work for Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), a drug kingpin, before taking over the business.
For Tony, America is the land of opportunity. "In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women." And while Tony rises to power — it is no coincidence that Tony sees the phrase, "The World Is Yours," on a blimp as he reaches the top — he cannot buy his mother's (Miriam Colon), respect. She tells him, "It's the Cubans like you who are giving a bad name to our people. People who come here to work hard." "Scarface" emphasizes the corruption of purity, most baldly in a subplot featuring Tony's sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). But ultimately, DePalma's film is an orgiastic bloodbath about excess. Tony, who came from the gutter (and is called "an immigrant sp** millionaire"), becomes disillusioned, especially in a fancy restaurant, when he asks, "Is this it?" with a weariness that belies his ambition to achieve the American Dream. (Stream it on Peacock Premium or AMC)


By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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