Imagining the Immigrant--on Film

In light of the charged debate surrounding the troubling new immigration law in Arizona, it is worth revisiting John J. Savant's article from October 26, "Imagining the Immigrant." Savant's prescient insight was that the nation's anti-immigrant fervor is fundamentally a failure of imagination:

The American dream has run headlong into a historical crunch time. If we are not to betray the dream, we simply must imagine better. Just as we imagined our dogged pilgrim pioneers and our daring frontier ancestors in creating a heroic mythology and a resourceful and generous self-image, so too does the bond of our common humanity require that we imagine today the blood ties with our immigrant population that render their desperation our own. Historically, humankind finds this a supremely difficult challenge, for our loyalties to family, clan and nation are the schools of our first imaginings in culture, ritual and governance. We tend to resist other ways of living, other cultures, despite the fact that, as cultural historians will affirm, travel, trade and periodic immigrations have ever tended to enrich their host cultures. In the matter of our growing immigrant population, then, can we not imagine better than to build fences and expand border patrols?

Rereading Savant's article, it occurred to me that film could play a crucial role in cultivating the kind of empathy that he describes. As it happens, on the the day after the new Arizona law passed, I watched one such film, "Goodbye Solo," directed by Ramin Bahrani. Like "The Visitor" (2007) and "Sugar," (2009) "Solo" bestows humanity on its characters simply by drawing them from the shadows and telling their stories.

As John Coleman, S.J., noted in a review for America, the titular "Solo" is a cab driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who has emigrated from Senegal. He drives at night, sleeps during the day, and dreams of one day becoming a flight attendant. The film centers on his relationship with William, a grizzled retiree who makes an unusual proposition when he first rides in Solo's cab. For $1,000, he wants Solo to drive him to a remote park on a designated day later that month--and not bring him back. William's dark intentions quickly become obvious to Solo, and the cab driver spends the rest of the film trying to befriend William, in hopes of convincing him not to end his life.

The two men slowly become friends of sorts, even though they could not be more different--Solo is warm and friendly, his smile and laugh infectious. Williams rarely smiles, and he mostly wants to be left alone. By the end of the film they reach a kind of detante, and their bond, while unusual to say the least, is undeniable.

Solo's immigrant status is never mentioned in the film. Nor are we told the status of his Latino wife, or his African friends who work at motels and drive cabs. They are simply part of the fabric of the city they inhabit. The filmmakers were wise not to explicity invoke politics. It is enough to suggest that the bonds of kinship may be enough to forge a new kind of community in this country. That the film's director, an Iranian-American from Winston-Salem, chose to make a film about a man from Senegal, is in itself proof that such a  community already exists.

What is most moving about "Goodbye Solo" is that the director approaches William--a character who in less skilled hands might be dismissed as a simple "red neck"--with the same kind of empathy as his immigrant subjects. By presenting all of his characters, immigrant and citizen, black and white, with intelligence and nuance, Ramin Bahrani is exercising precisely the kind of moral imagination Savant describes.

It will be a few weeks yet before Congress takes up the nitty gritty details of immigration reform. Before the political debate heats up, it may be in all of our interests to take a break and go to the movies.

Tim Reidy


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