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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

February 22, 2011: Coming to be Family

Immigration’s a tricky thing for an AmericanStudier. There are lots of reasons why that’s the case, lots of historical and cultural and legal and linguistic and generational and communal and individual complexities and aspects to the issue—many of which I’ve written about in this space in one or another post—that make it challenging (if also even more crucial) to understand and analyze. But perhaps the most frustrating and significant such reason is that immigration at one and the same time connects to many of our most cherished national ideals (witness the role of the Statue of Liberty in our narratives) and reveals many of our most divisive and ugly national realities (witness the comments section on any article dealing with a topic like the DREAM Act). It’s really at the heart of much of what is best and much of what is worst about America, and has been throughout our history (as I previously noted, Ben Franklin, maybe the most impressive of our founders, expressed repulsive xenophobic beliefs about German Americans in Pennsylvania).
Interestingly enough, two of the films from the last decade that deal most centrally and consistently with themes of immigration reflect precisely these dual and dueling images (while certainly leaving room for the other side in each case): Jim Sheridan’s In America (2003) tells the story of an Irish family who come to America for a fresh start after the death of their youngest child and, despite various struggles and crises, certainly do end up finding their share of the nation’s magic (the scene when the family first arrives in and drives through New York City is literally set to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?”); while Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor (2007), despite its overt focus on a stoic middle-aged, widowed college professor, features the story of a couple whom the professor befriends, a Syrian street musician and a West African vendor whose lives and relationship are destroyed when the Syrian, an illegal immigrant, is arrested on a minor charge, held at a detention facility with no opportunity for recourse or response, and ultimately deported (leading to a culminating rant from the professor against an INS agent, a moment that reflects how fully he has been brought back to life by this series of events). The tone of the films’ great final scenes could not be more distinct: In America’s family celebrating the birth of a new child and bidding a final farewell to the lost son; The Visitor’s professor playing his Syrian’s friend’s drum in the subway, a passionate and even angry performance both in honor of the man’s life and art and in protest of what has happened to him.
The distinction makes for a really interesting one-two punch, a reflection of how fully immigration can still represent these hugely disparate national narratives and how powerfully art can capture each end of the spectrum. Yet I would also argue that the films are remarkably similar in another, and perhaps even more ultimately American, way: they both depict, in plot and character elements that I believe must be read as metaphors for our national identity more broadly, immigration’s ability to connect cultures and communities and fill otherwise painful voids in our individual identities and families. In Sheridan’s film, the Irish American mother and her newborn son both survive a health crisis thanks entirely to a magical gift from a neighbor, a West African immigrant and painter who is dying of AIDS and (we’re meant to see) sends part of his essence to the mother and baby as he dies; the moment is not unlike the long tradition of “Magic Negro” characters in films, but at least in this case the character in question both has a deep and complex identity of his own and has formed for much of the film a close relationship with the family’s two young girls, one that has clearly enriched his own identity and life as much as it has and will theirs. And in McCarthy’s, the professor’s reawakening comes not only from his anger at what has happened to his friend, but from a romantic connection with the friend’s mother, a Syrian American widow with whom he bonds over the son’s plight and through whom he begins to imagine a future and family beyond those he has lost; the connection is brief and partial, but deeply felt and familial all the same, as we see when the woman calls the professor by the same Syrian term for a beloved soulmate that her son had used for his lover earlier in the film.
It’s beyond cliché to say that being American means being part of a national family, and the phrase can certainly be used (as in yesterday’s example of the civility narrative) to oversimplify or elide historical divisions and darknesses. But what these cinematic relationships do—as in its own amazing way does the final scene and revelation of John Sayles’ Lone Star, which I’m most definitely not spoiling here—is push beyond the cliché, asking us to consider what it really means that we’re family to one another, that a West African painter, two Irish schoolgirls, a WASPy professor, and a Syrian street musician are all American brothers and sisters; and so that immigration, whatever the ideals or the realities, has really been nothing more or less than a multi-century, ever-expanding, raucous and tiring and exhilarating and life-changing family trip. More tomorrow, on two late 19th century voices that are a lot alike yet entirely distinct.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Nice montage of In America moments:
2)      Great scene from The Visitor:
3)      OPEN: Any artistic images of immigration you’d share?

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