These Movies Show the Joy and Struggle of the Immigrant Experience | Sojourners

These Movies Show the Joy and Struggle of the Immigrant Experience

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of Rahab. The Israelites are on the brink of conquering the city of Jericho, a part of the land they and their ancestors have dreamed of for 40 years. But first, they send two spies to scope out the city, and they come straight to the home of a Canaanite named Rahab. I find it curious and fascinating that the story of the Israelites and their search for home is interrupted to tell the story of a foreign sex worker and her role in helping the Israelites conquer the “Promised Land.”

Rahab is exactly the kind of person most people would want to exclude from their nation: a cunning woman who lies and makes her living from sex work; she challenges everything the Israelites believe about goodness, worthiness, and inclusion.

While Rahab herself is not an immigrant at the beginning of her story, by the end, she has left her Canaanite neighbors and joined the Israelites. Like so many immigrants today, she values survival above all, and seizes the opportunity to save her family and herself by aligning with the conquering people. She doesn’t question whether she is worthy of inclusion. She seems to know deep in her soul that her status as a human being is enough to make her deserving of belonging.

Rahab’s story deserves to be remembered, as do many of the films we encounter that address the nuances, joys, and sorrows of the immigrant experience. The works below are such films:

Brooklyn (2015)

Want to travel back in time to watch the Dodgers in Brooklyn? Look no further than this charming period drama. The film tells the story of a young Irish woman who immigrated to 1950s New York City in search of new economic opportunities. For those who romanticize the migration experiences of their European ancestors, this film reveals the homesickness and poignant losses they experienced as well as the very unromantic ocean voyages. Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is how little the immigration experience has changed, with one important exception: The protagonist needs only a letter from an American priest in New York to arrange for permanent legal status in the United States.

A Better Life (2011)

This heartrending drama tells the story of a Mexican man named Carlos and his teenage son Luis. Carlos is undocumented and works as a gardener, taking care of the lawns of wealthy Americans. He is a skilled worker who does the work U.S. citizens do not want to do, rendered invisible by his undocumented status. Because his legal status obligates him to live in an under-resourced neighborhood, Carlos struggles to keep his family together and his son out of the gangs. As Carlos works to improve his family’s economic situation, he faces the very real fear of deportation and being victimized without recourse. A Better Life is a strangely hopeful film about survival and human resilience, but it is also an indictment of an unjust and outdated immigration system.

Blinded by the Light (2019)

I was crying in the theater long after the lights came back on after viewing this British comedy-drama. I resonated deeply with its compelling portrayal of the inevitable conflicts and misunderstandings that arise between first-generation immigrant parents and their second-generation children. The film tells the story of Javed Khan, the child of Pakistani immigrants, who lives in Luton, England, in the late-1980s. Javed is burdened by his conflicting desires: to be loyal to his parents and his Pakistani culture and to integrate into British culture. He finds refuge and joy in the music of Bruce Springsteen. The nuanced storytelling of Blinded by the Light reveals an important truth: Immigrants do not have to assimilate to belong; they can integrate while remaining whole and fully bicultural.

Minari (2021)

This beautiful drama will introduce you to the Korean cooking herb the film is named after and to an important poultry industry job: chick sexing. The film opens in 1983 as the Korean family Yi moves from California to rural Arkansas, where the family patriarch, Jacob, hopes to grow Korean produce to sell in Texas. Monica, Jacob’s wife, preferred to remain in California within their well-established Korean community. The heart of the story, however, is not the family’s struggle to succeed or the marital conflict spurred on by the move, but the special relationship between Soonja and her grandson David, who she cares for while Jacob and Monica work. While recent studies have shown that immigrants get ahead in the United States because of their willingness to move wherever they find economic opportunities, the film shows that this flexibility and adaptability does not come without significant personal costs.

Flee (2021)

Flee is a Danish production that is difficult to categorize: it is a documentary, an animated story, and a film. It tells the story of Amin Nawabi, a gay man, who shares with the director of the film, Jonas Rasmussen, a secret he has held since he arrived in Denmark as a refugee from Afghanistan when he was 16-years-old. Rasmussen and Amin have been friends since their teens. Throughout the film, Amin tells stories of his childhood in Kabul and details how he and his family fled for their lives. Flee is not just a tragic tale of seeking refuge but a story of finding home and coming to terms with one’s identity. The use of animation to protect the identity of Amin, a pseudonym, is a creative solution that preserves Amin’s voice: He is safe to tell us his own story, including painful memories he tried to bury long ago. The end of the film is particularly poignant and reveals the cruelty of immigration and asylum laws and what is often required of those who need refuge.