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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: July 2, 2018

In light of Independence Day, films that more accurately depict the pursuit of the American dream

Written by: Dennis Perkins

James Earl Jones in “Matewan.”
Photo courtesy of Cinecom Pictures

As much as some would choose to deny it, America is nothing without immigrants. (Here, I’m not counting Native Americans, as that inconveniently ignored genocide invalidates not only my argument, but the notion of America.) Still, the history of this America, the one we’ve got, is the history of people coming in because they buy into the idea of what America purports to be. (And sometimes is.)

Movies are all about that idealized, even romanticized vision of America. Fiction needs a story, and the narrative of people from all over the world overcoming untold hardships – both outside and inside their new country – in order to become a part of this deeply imperfect but aspirational experiment of a society is an irresistible one for moviemakers.

It’s the week of Independence Day in an America where that dream of a nation threatens to shatter under the pressures of the same old blinkered, bigoted, xenophobic and truly un-American forces that repeat themselves again and again. The movies, at their best, show us what we can be. Here are some of the best at showing how this nation of immigrants has – and can – find its best self once more.


Year: 1987
Director/writer: John Sayles

The immigrants: Italians and African Americans (whose “immigrant” status remains an especially complex and shameful one, historically)

The conflict: Unknowingly brought in to act as scabs to replace the white Appalachian coal miners during the coal strikes of 1920s West Virginia, the three groups of workers clash over economic and cultural pressures.

Darkest point: Caught between the guns of the striking miners and the coal barons’ Pinkerton agent strikebreakers, the black and Italian workers stand poised on the brink of a massacre.

The way through: In the deeply humanistic Sayles’ work, humanity finds a way to at least a glimmer of hope. Here, the newly arrived and the deeply rooted alike manage an uneasy alliance born of a common enemy. Leader of the black miners James Earl Jones tells off a group of racist union men, while conflicted lawman David Strathairn eventually sides with his townspeople over those who would exploit them. Some die in the ensuing fight, but the film posits that the stronger America they forge is worth the sacrifice.


Year: 2005
Director/writer: Robinson Devor, Charles Mudede

The immigrant: A Seattle bike cop of African descent named Z (Pape Sidy Niang) rides through a week’s worth of increasingly odd encounters, both criminal and personal, in this visually striking, enigmatic indie.

The conflict: Hired by well-intentioned bureaucrats for his “diversity,” the gentle, poetic-souled cop anguishes over the possible infidelity of his white girlfriend while coping with the unpredictable reactions of those he meets on his daily rounds.

Darkest point: The mounting pressures explode in a wrenching scene where Z waits for a traffic noise to drown out his screaming litany of all the ways he’s done everything a “real American” is supposed to do.

The way through: Z may not be meant to be a cop, but his richly human reactions to the bewildering world mark him as uniquely American.

Algenis Perez Soto in “Sugar,” which may be the best baseball movie you’ve never seen.
Photo courtesy of HBO Films


Year: 2008
Directors/writers: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

The immigrant: Miguel (nicknamed “Sugar”) is a Dominican-born aspiring baseball pitcher plunked down in the middle of Iowa, his excellent knuckle curve and work visa being all the Spanish-speaking Sugar have in a lonely, high-pressure new world.

The conflict: With his future and that of his impoverished family resting on every pitch, Sugar (the excellent Algenis Perez Soto) must navigate a rural America where outsiders are accommodated only so long as their value to the local minor league team holds out.

Darkest point: His career in jeopardy, Sugar’s desperate attempts to gain an edge see him kick off an on-field brawl.

The way through: Easily the best baseball movie you’ve never seen, “Sugar” is also a beautifully understated immigrant story, where coming to America means facing risks and making choices even more challenging than you imagined. Sugar finds that the American dream – even embodied in the American pastime – requires constant adjusting.


Year: 1983
Director/writers: Gregory Nava, Anna Thomas

The immigrants: Two Guatemalan teens (first-time actors Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando), fleeing poverty and violence, make an arduous and perilous trek to the American border, where they hope to find a better life.

The conflict: From the unscrupulous human smugglers who prey on the naïve and desperate, to the immigration officials always threatening to send them back to certain death in Guatemala, to the treachery of their new fellow Americans, the loyal pair sacrifice everything only to come up against the harsh realities of life as undocumented immigrants.

Darkest point: Making the crossing into America involves an ordeal the late Roger Ebert referred to as one of the most horrifying he’d ever seen. He’s not wrong.

The way through: Nava is unsparing in depicting the daily grind of fear his young heroes must endure and clearly admiring of their bravery. But, not to spoil anything, he also shows how, for immigrants, the American dream often entails unthinkable sacrifice.


Year: 2002
Director/writers: Martin Scorsese; Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan

The immigrants: Everyone, although, according to crime boss and leader of the violent Nativists gang Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), only the members of Irish gang Dead Rabbits don’t belong in the film’s teeming Civil War-era America.

The conflict: Apart from a “you killed my father” revenge plot between Cutting and Leonardo DiCaprio’s secretly Irish Amsterdam, the film’s New York City is a rigid hierarchy of tribalist gangs, all willing to kill for the title of “real Americans.” Meanwhile, local politicians make use of the conflict to manipulate the racial hatred to their advantage. (Which all sounds depressingly familiar somehow.)

The way through: In the film? None, really, unless finally stabbing your sworn enemy to death in one of the most elaborately violent battle sequences ever shot is the solution. In the sweep of America’s history, working classes are quick (and quickly manipulated) to look for scapegoats in those somehow not as “American.” As “Gangs of New York” shows in its smoky, bloody aftermath, everyone involved is wounded, and nothing is gained – except by those who count on anti-immigrant bigotry to keep the masses at each others’ throats.

Coming to local screens

On Facebook
Wednesday, July 11: “Angst.” This 55-minute documentary examines the often debilitating effects of anxiety and the ways sufferers have learned to cope. This is a free screening, there’s a helpful panel discussion, and refreshments from Cook’s Lobster House are provided, all of which sounds very soothing.

Wednesday, July 11: “Love, Simon.” Another free screening, this 2018 teen rom-com is about a secretly gay high schooler (“Jurassic World’s” Nick Robinson) navigating the usual teenage romantic foibles, complete with some good humor about the added level of difficulty.

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