I believe in America. Those are the first words we hear at the beginning of Hollywood classic The Godfather, whose Italian-American saga unfolds in a post-war world of mobsters and protection rackets.
John Crowley’s more recent film Brooklyn, released in 2015, presents a much more benign, even romantic perspective on migration to America in the 1950s, this time from County Wexford in the south east of Ireland.
What the two films have in common is this cast-iron belief in America, not just as a country but as a concept: the promised land.
Millions have sought a new life in the United States since the colonial period, when “free white persons of good character” were first officially welcomed in after the 1790 Naturalization Act. We saw the result of a more open-armed policy in living colour at this year’s Oscars ceremony, which echoed affirmatively with the voices of proud immigrants, from Africa, Asia, Europe and – in the case of veteran Cherokee actor Wes Studi – a proud native whose family was there long before the Mayflower dropped anchor.
The powerful stories of this great immigrant nation have long been told at the cinema – hardly surprising given Hollywood was founded by those fleeing oppression in Europe in the early 20th century.
Vito Corleone left Sicily in 1901, aged nine – a voyage vividly depicted in sepia-tinted flashback at the start of The Godfather Part II. A fictional journey, yes, but not an uncommon one. Escaping a Mafia turf war back home, we see him arrive in New York, where the Statue of Liberty offers a hearth and home to the world’s “huddled masses”.
In Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan’s young Irish dreamer Eilis Lacey makes a similar transatlantic voyage in a bid to find work, a trip arranged by Catholic priest Jim Broadbent. She does indeed get a job, at a Manhattan department store, while lodging at a women-only boarding house. But unlike Vito Corleone, she is not fleeing for her life, and her biggest problem is homesickness.
For a textbook example of the power of migration to America, try Titanic (or any of its antecedents), in which the cash-strapped Celts and Gaels in steerage are locked below decks while the wealthy eat and make less merry above. There’s no mistaking who director James Cameron thinks would make America great again, if they could only reach New York. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack may be American, but he’s a whizz at the old Irish dancing and better company than Kate Winslet’s caddish fiancé. And wealth aside, the New World exerts the same magnetic power over them all.
In The Immigrant, Marion Cotillard arrives at Ellis Island having fled inhospitable 1920s Poland; in Green Card, Gérard Depardieu’s illegal alien in New York marries Andie MacDowell in order to get his work permit; and in Moscow on the Hudson Robin Williams plays a Russian circus musician who defects while in Bloomingdale’s.
But for everyone who tries to bring such dreams of a new life across the pond to celluloid, they have An American Tail to beat, which is surely the definitive cinematic celebration of migration. Produced by Steven Spielberg in 1986, this animation tells of the Mousekewitz family, Jewish mice who are terrorised in late 19th-century Russia not by anti-Semitic Cossacks, but cats. Convinced that the promised land is a place where there are no cats, they stow aboard a steamer to New York.
On arrival, they befriend an Italian mouse and an Irish mouse, who regretfully inform them that there are cats – an echo of the disappointment that sometimes greets new residents like Vito Corleone and Eilis Lacey, faced with casual racism in a forbiddingly tall city. No wonder the masses sometimes huddle.
The big question now is: does America still represent the land of opportunity in the uneasy, unpredictable Trump era, emblemised as it is by arbitrary travel bans and threatened walls?
For those from migrating families whose beacon was originally the UK – like Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya (whose parents arrived here from Uganda in the late 80s) – America still exerts that same powerful pull, albeit professionally.
Like other black British actors such as David Oyelowo, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Idris Elba, Kaluuya believes in America… in the chance of better roles in bigger movies. As he follows in Vito and Eilis’s footsteps, it seems for some Hollywood may still be the promised land.
Brooklyn airs on Sunday 18th March at 8.30pm on BBC1
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