to Hollywood's America
and the Movies
of our most memorable images of the past come from movies. Films
set in the past provide a vivid record of history: of the "look,"
the clothing, the atmosphere, and the mood of past eras. Nevertheless,
movies remain a controversial source of historical evidence. Because
moviemakers are not held to the same standards as historians,
historical films often contain inaccuracies and anarchronisms.
Further, films frequently blur the line between fact and fiction
and avoid complex ideas that cannot be presented visually.
course, no one goes to a movie expecting a history lesson. Feature
films are a form of art and entertainment, and screenwriters frequently
take license with historical facts in order to enhance a movie's
appeal and drama. Feature films rely on a variety of techniques
that tend to distort historical realities. For one thing, popular
films tend to be formulaic; they draw upon a series of conventions,
stereotypes, and stock characters to tell a story. Also, films
tend to "personalize" history by using individual characters
to illustrate larger social processes and conflicts.
if analyzed critically, films can provide a valuable window onto
the past. History is not simply an accumulation of objective facts;
it is also an attempt to interpret facts. Like a novel, a film
can offer an interpretation of the past. Indeed, filmmakers' freedom
can give them an opportunity to explore issues of character and
psychology that historians sometimes avoid.
has long been a popular cinematic theme. The birth of film coincided
with an unprecedented wave of global immigration. Immigrants formed
a large share of film's early audience, and many early films,
including the first "talkie," The Jazz Singer, dramatized
and personalized the immigrant experience.
E. Cortés (in Robert Brent Toplin, ed., Hollywood as
Mirror (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993), argues that
Hollywood films offer a great deal of valuable information on
the subject of immigration. Silent movies, for example, can provide
clues about popular attitudes toward immigrants, about immigrants'
aspirations, and about the obstacles immigrants encountered as
they sought to enter new societies. In addition, silent films
provide vivid glimpses of ethnic neighborhoods and enclaves. A
number of films released during World War I address the issue
of national loyalty. They ask whether immigrants would remain
loyal to their place of birth or identify with their new homeland.
the 1920s, many popular films emphasized themes of assimilation
and acculturation. Such films as Abie's Irish Rose (1929)
celebrated ethnic intermarriage as a vehicle of assimilation,
while other popular films, such as The Jazz Singer (1927),
praise characters who overcome the pressure to maintain ethnic
or religious traditions or refuse to follow their father's vocation.
the Great Depression's earliest years, when the conventional ladder
of success seemed to have broken down, many films looked at crime
as a vehicle for upward mobility. The popular urban gangster film
typically focused on the struggle of young ethnic of Chinese,
Irish, or Italian descent to overcome a deprived environment and
achieve wealth and power. Later in the Depression, many popular
films celebrated immigrants' efforts to enter mainstream society
and achieve material success through a combination of optimism
and hardwork. World War II combat films portrayed the military
as an ethnic melting pot where men of diverse ethnic backgrounds
melded together to form an effective fighting unit.
early post-war era saw a proliferation of "social problem"
films that emphasized the problems of poverty, prejudice,
and discrimination immigrants faced as they entered a new
society. The late 1960s and 1970s witnessed a host of popular
films that explored Italian and Jewish ethnic groups' immigrant
roots, sometimes nostalgically, as in Hester Sreet
(1975), and sometimes critically, as in The Godfather
film's interest in migration persists. In recent years, many films
have examined the plight of undocumented immigrants, economic
competition among ethnic groups, problems of cultural and linguistic
adjustment, and the generation gap among immigrants and their
project that many students might find appealing involves watching
a film dealing with migration. The students, then, would be asked
to answer a series of questions specially designed to help them
develop "visual literacy." Not only will students learn
about migration, they will also develop a skill that is particularly
valuable in an era saturated with media images: how to read a
does the film dramatize the subject of migration?
the film portray migration in positive terms, as an opportunity
for economic mobility or greater freedom, or in more negative
the film's portrayal of immigration seem accurate and realistic?
the immigrant depicted as odd and eccentric or as threatening?
is the immigrant treated by the new society? Is the immigrant
discriminated against or victimized?
assimilation and acculturation depicted positively, negatively,
or with mixed emotions?
Migration and the Slave Trade
Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1984)
a Bowl of Tea (1988)
Cover the Waterfront (1933)
of Hope (1990)
Joy Luck Club
on Tokyo Time (1987)
on Tokyo Time (1987)
Displaced Person (1976)
and Away (1992)
Manions of America (1981)
on the Hudson (1984)
Girl Tisa (1948)
the Conqueror (1988)
Than Paradise (1984)
Wedding Night (1935)
Until Spring, Bandini (1990)
is My Child (1937)
por el Destino (1987)