When people in this nation of immigrants began flocking to the movies, they went to see stories about themselves. From 1905, when nickelodeons first appeared, to the end of the 1920s, when Hollywood began to create a star system, innumerable romances, comedies and melodramas featured immigrants and working-class laborers as their central characters. And with good reason. Their audience, like the group of men who invented Hollywood, was made up of immigrants or their American-born children.
“The early movies were a medium that spoke directly to immigrant Americans,” explains film historian Steven Ross, whose 1998 book, “Working Class Hollywood,” explores how films shaped America’s idea of class during the silent movie era. “In the big cities, nickelodeons were located in the bad areas of town -- the immigrant neighborhoods. But it was a huge audience. By 1910, many cities had a population that was 70% first- and second-generation immigrants.”
Silent movies dealt with all sorts of issues -- mostly ripped from the headlines of the day -- that would be unfamiliar today to moviegoers: battles against slumlords, exploitation of child labor, rebellious female sweatshop workers. In 1908, D.W. Griffith, the first great silent-film director, made “Song of the Shirt,” a powerful melodrama about a tenement seamstress who suffers all sorts of degradations at the hands of a vicious sweatshop foreman.
I thought of Griffith as I watched Stephen Frears’ new movie, “Dirty Pretty Things,” which opened Friday. Set in today’s multicultural London, it’s a stylish update of those nickelodeon-era melodramas, a romantic thriller set in the shadowy world of illegal immigrants, starring British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor -- whose Nigerian parents helped with his accent -- French actress Audrey Tautou and Spanish actor Sergi Lopez. The film depicts a city teeming with desperate outsiders who’ll do almost anything to avoid being kicked out of the promised land, including selling a kidney in exchange for a passport. The film even has a harrowing scene that could’ve fit neatly in “Song of the Shirt”: Tautou’s character is forced to supply sexual favors in return for a seamstress’ job in a fetid London sweatshop.
Having made films as disparate as “Dangerous Liaisons,” “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “High Fidelity,” Frears is no starry-eyed crusader. “I’m not politically active at all,” he confessed when we had lunch recently. But he couldn’t help but notice how England has been transformed in recent years by immigration, whether it’s the city’s hospitals, which largely are run by immigrants, or the London literary scene, which is dominated by gifted Indian and Asian writers. Even the captain of the England cricket team, Nasser Hussain, is Indian, which, as Frears put it, is as dramatic a statement “as if the queen herself were Indian.”
“You get in a cab in London and you don’t know where the man is from, whether it’s Nigeria, Somalia, Russia or Turkey,” said Frears. “We’ve had this huge migration of people out of the Balkans and the Third World. The [British] government must know that the only reason the country works is because of this huge influx of illegal immigrant labor.”
Frears isn’t the only filmmaker who’s been moved by accounts of perilous refugee journeys or the heated debate over whether immigrants should be treated as economic migrants or political refugees. “In This World,” a new film from British director Michael Winterbottom that debuts here in September, follows the tortuous path of two Afghan boys who travel overland from Pakistan to London. The film is shot like a documentary. And, in fact, the young boy who plays the film’s central character now is living as a refugee in London. In November, Fox Searchlight will release “In America,” Jim Sheridan’s quasi-autobiographical film about the Irish filmmaker’s arrival with his family in 1980’s New York City.
What all these movies have in common is that they’ve been made by filmmakers who work far away from the studio system. In recent years, as Hollywood has become focused on reaching an international audience, personal stories increasingly have been shunted aside for movies populated with car chases, gun battles and comic book adventures that are as easily understood in Jakarta or Jerusalem as in Jersey City. But for Winterbottom, “In This World” isn’t a political tract so much as a timely drama. “These people, like our Afghan refugees, are making these incredible epic, dangerous journeys,” he said. “And yet it’s happening right now, not centuries back in history. For me, it’s a great story to tell. When we were filming in Italy, 3,000 refugees arrived off the coast and the Italian government minister proclaimed that it was the duty of the Italian navy to sink any boats with refugees. And yet there I was, with a film crew with a huge range of nationalities.”
Hollywood used to make movies about an especially seductive type of immigrant who clawed his way to untold wealth and celebrity only to lose it all through hubris and gunplay; they were called gangster films. “You probably couldn’t have gangster movies without immigrants,” said Martin Scorsese, who has explored the genre in almost every way imaginable, from “Goodfellas” to “Gangs of New York.” “Bill the Butcher was very much a 20th century gangster. His funeral was a lot like Al Capone’s -- kill the guy and then send the biggest flowers.”
In recent years, Hollywood has shied away from exploring the immigrant experience, in part because it’s become such a political hot potato, in part because well-heeled studio executives find it hard to identify with the subject. It’s hard to imagine a major studio today backing a gently satiric tale such as Paul Mazursky’s 1984 film, “Moscow on the Hudson.” The turf has been left in the hands of such independent filmmakers as Gregory Nava (“El Norte”), Mira Nair (“The Perez Family”) and John Sayles (“Lone Star”). Modern-day studio movies reflect a sensibility that is more in sync with today’s “show me the money” culture. The blue-collar underdog has largely been replaced by a Type A overachiever, symbolized best by Reese Witherspoon’s indefatigable character in the “Legally Blonde” series.
There’s also a class issue at work here. As David Brooks, author of “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” argues in a recent essay, many Americans admire the rich more than they envy them. He cites a Time poll that discovered that 19% of Americans claimed to be the richest 1% of earners -- and 20% more expected to be someday. Brooks concluded that most Americans “have always had a sense that great opportunities lie just over the horizon, in the next valley, with the next job.... None of us is really poor, we’re just pre-rich.”
There’s a beautiful still from John Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath” in the 20th Century Fox executive office building, but it’s exactly the sort of movie that would be a hard sell in today’s Hollywood. Too downbeat, too down market -- and where are the product placement opportunities?
Likewise for gritty ‘70s blue-collar stories such as Martin Ritt’s “Norma Rae” or John Avildsen’s “Rocky.” It was only after a storm of protest that CBS was shamed into postponing its search for a hapless hillbilly family to star in a reality TV version of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
There are exceptions, of course, most notably “Erin Brockovich” and a blue-collar Cinderella fable such as “Maid in Manhattan,” where Jennifer Lopez plays a hotel maid, though God forbid we ever see her scrubbing a toilet. But in most movies today, affluence reigns. Even though Witherspoon is an entry-level congressional aide in “Legally Blonde 2,” she has a wardrobe fit for a society queen. In “Unfaithful,” Olivier Martinez is a boho book dealer, but he resides in an apartment sumptuous enough for Architectural Digest. It’s a far cry from the tumbledown world of “Dirty Pretty Things,” where Frears’ African immigrant hero chews khat to stay awake, largely because he has nowhere to sleep.
“In England, you can be working class and be proud of it, but America is an incredibly aspirational society -- people simply don’t identify with being poor,” said Fox Searchlight’s British-born chief, Peter Rice, who bankrolled “In America.” “You have an administration that’s only cutting taxes for the richest people in the country, yet if you ask people, they’re supportive of what’s going on because they genuinely think they’re going to get some of it.”
In one of my favorite scenes in “Dirty Pretty Things,” a Russian hotel doorman is, like nearly everyone in the film, making some cash on the side by preparing an off-the-menu sandwich for a hotel guest. He airily advises his assistant to cut the crusts off the toast, then delicately drops a sprig of parsley on the plate. After studying his creation, he proclaims triumphantly: “It’s the little touches that make the difference -- that’s capitalism!”
Born of a mixture of aspiration and desperation, it’s a telling comment about the immigrant’s embrace of a new land. It’s a subject that should be especially near and dear to America, but one that has gotten short shrift in our movies.
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