Awards season is upon us! Every year the American awards season captures the attention and excitement of people around the globe as the women and men of the entertainment industry are recognized for their outstanding performances in television and film. In recognition of this special time of year—and since we are an immigration law firm—we thought it would be fun to celebrate the immigration themes in this year’s films nominated for Oscars (sorry Golden Globes et al!) as well as the contributions of many foreign nationals to American film and television.
Of all the films nominated for “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards this year, the most obvious one with an immigration theme is Brooklyn. In this film, we follow meek Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) in her journey out of her Irish home where she had no prospects through her harrowing and uncomfortable boat trip to America where a job and opportunities await; through the loneliness and alienation in her new country and into her romance with an Italian-American boy, for whom she learns how to swirl and eat pasta. When she is forced to return home to Ireland, she is lulled into the familiarity and comforts of her home. She also meets an Irish boy who falls in love with her. Eilis eventually has to face the tough choice of staying home in Ireland with all that is familiar and safe or going back to America where she has made a new home and life for herself. The struggle she faces is one every immigrant experiences. In this way the film takes a deep look at the joys and trials of an immigrant, both in the celebration and excitement of starting a new life in a new place and also the longing to return home and family and all that is familiar. Saoirse Ronan (a US national of Irish descent and upbringing) is also nominated for an Academy Award for “Actress in a Leading Role.”
The Revenant, set in 1820s America, is the story of frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his teenage son Hawk who join a pelt-gathering expedition, which is attacked by Native Americans. While there is certainly a less direct theme of “immigration,” the film is set in the Northwest Territories at a time when westward expansion and exploration was violently colliding with Native American peoples, and reminds us that as Americans, we all came to the US from elsewhere. The Revenant won the Golden Globe for “Best Motion Picture, Drama”, and is nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Picture.” (Leonardo DiCaprio won the Golden Globe for “Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama” and is widely expected to win the Academy Award for “Actor in a Leading Role.”)
Sicario, about an FBI agent who joins a government task force to bring down the leader of a powerful Mexican drug cartel, also deals with certain “immigration” issues, namely the drug wars and extreme violence affecting towns along the border of the US and Mexico that along with extreme poverty is a major motivator for many to leave their home towns and come to the US. While the film reinforces several stereotypes of Mexico, it also shows how porous the US-Mexico border is and suggests that perhaps some government agencies prefer it is kept this way. As Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) says to Kate (Emily Blunt): “You should move to a small town, where the rule of the law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.”
Other films address immigration themes as well. While certainly not about "immigration" in the traditional sense, The Martian, about an exploratory mission on Mars that goes wrong, Mad Max: Fury Road, about a character’s quest to return to her home country after being taking captive years earlier, Inside Out, about a young girl’s conflicted feelings about a move to a new town across the country, and Boy and the World, about a young boy’s trip from the idyllic countryside to the city (by Brazilian director and screenwriter Alê Abreu), all are concerning people traveling to new and foreign places, and trying to make sense of their surroundings and their place in them, a familiar element in the experience of many immigrants.
Other documentary and foreign language films emphasize the extraordinary importance of international events, immigration, and local culture: “Documentary Feature” nominee Amy tells the story of British singer Amy Winehouse in her own words, featuring unseen footage and unheard music tracks including the time she could not travel to the US to attend the Grammy Awards because the US refused to issue her a visa; “Documentary Feature” nominee Cartel Land follows a physician in Mexico who leads a citizen uprising against a drug cartel, while across the US border, a veteran paramilitary group works to prevent the drug wars from entering the US; “Documentary Feature” nominee The Look of Silence tells the story of a family that survives the genocide in Indonesia and confronts the men who killed one of their brothers; “Foreign Language Film” nominee Embrace of the Serpent, directed by Columbian national Ciro Guerra, about a Colombian shaman Karamakate who guides German explorer Theo on an expedition through the Amazonian wilderness; “Foreign Language Film” nominee Mustang, directed by Turkish-French national Deniz Gamze Erguven, about five orphaned teenage sisters who are imprisoned in their family home in their village in northern Turkey; “Foreign Language Film” nominee Son of Saul, directed by Hungarian national Laszlo Nemes, about a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust; “Foreign Language Film” nominee Theeb, directed by British national Naji Abu Nowar, about recently orphaned brothers Hussein and Theeb, who live a traditional Bedouin life but are caught up in the world events of 1916; and “Foreign Language Film” nominee A War, directed by Danish national Tobias Lindholm, about a Danish army commander in Afghanistan.
Many of the short films nominated also feature internationally-diverse casts of characters and subjects, including Chau, Beyond the Lines, about a disabled Vietnamese boy’s quest to become an artist, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, about a Pakistani woman whose father and uncle targeted her for an honor killing, and Body Team 12, the short documentary filmed in Liberia about a team tasked with collecting the bodies of those who died in the Ebola epidemic. And, of course, we must mention the excellent animated short, Sanjay's Super Team, by Sanjay Patel. This short features the story of a first-generation Indian-American who is obsessed with television, cartoons, and his superhero action figures, but reluctant to spend time in daily prayers with his devout Hindu father. It masterfully captures the classic immigrant dilemma between old and new worlds.
Many international performers are up for awards this year, including Michael Fassbender, the German-born, Irish-raised actor who starred in Steve Jobs; Eddie Redmayne, the British actor who starred in The Danish Girl; Cate Blanchett, who is Australian and starred in Carol; British actress Charlotte Rampling who starred in 45 Years; Christian Bale, who is Welsh and was a supporting actor in The Big Short; Mark Rylance, a British actor in Bridge of Spies; Canadian Rachel McAdams in Spotlight; and British actress Kate Winslet, in Steve Jobs.
There are also many foreign nationals doing impressive work behind the camera, including: “Directing” nominee George Miller, the Australian director for Mad Max: Fury Road; “Directing” nominee Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the Mexican director of The Revenant, who also won the Golden Globe for “Best Director”; and “Directing” nominee Lenny Abrahamson, an Irish director for Room. And that’s not all. British singer Sam Smith and fellow Brit songwriter Jimmy Napes are nominated for “Best Original Song” for Spectre’s “Writing’s on the Wall.” Famed British designer Sandy Powell (who’s already won three Oscars) is also nominated again for “Best Costume Design” for both Carol and Cinderella. And talented Japanese animators and film directors Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura are nominated for their feature-length film When Marnie Was There.
While we celebrate all these international nominees receiving recognition, the Academy has rightly been criticized for the lack of racial diversity in this year’s nominees (and also previous years). It would have been great to see more diverse nominees in all categories, including Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation, Will Smith for Concussion, Benicio Del Toro for Sicario, and Michael B. Jordan for Creed, to just name a few. While many bemoan the lack of roles available for minorities, John Oliver calls out the common occurrence of “whitewashing” roles that is still unfortunately happening today. That said, women and minorities are hugely underrepresented in front of and behind the camera in the American television and film industries. The New York Times interviewed twenty-seven actors, directors, and industry insiders from Queen Latifah to Ken Jeong to America Ferrera about their personal experiences of “not feeling seen, heard or accepted, and how they pushed forward.” From one executive who claimed there were no black people in Shakespeare’s time to a frequent request that minority actors speak with “stereotypical” accents, for those who are not straight white men, the path to success is fraught with challenges. We look forward to a time when the Oscar nominations truly reflect the diversity of people in the United States. In the meantime, we can be thankful for the diversity in subject matter and the fact that we don’t have to struggle to grow potatoes in Martian soil.