Brooklyn (2015) – A Story about Immigration

The film Brooklyn was one of the films nominated for multiple Academy Awards in 2016 including Best Picture and Best Actress for the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. The film was mediocre at best. The writing, directing, musical score, photography was mediocre. Part of them film depicts Ireland, which has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, yet the film failed to capture that. Granted, it was meant to portray the grim economic reality of 1950s Ireland, under the government of Eamon de Valera, but even on Ireland’s most gray rain soaked day, the Irish always took pride in their beautiful homeland.

The acting of Saoirse Ronan was nuanced and skillful. She’s able to convey emotion with just the expression on her face, it was a perfect vehicle for transition from child actress to adult actress. America was first introduced to Saoirse Ronan in the film Atonement, when she was just twelve years old, she played Briony Tallis, an upper class English girl who irrevocably changes the life of her older sister’s working class boyfriend by telling a lie to authorities, saying that he raped her older sister when it wasn’t true – she walked in on them being intimate. She was the perfect bratty upper-class girl who at a young age knew she was privileged and knew how to abuse her position in society. She was touted as an actress to watch in the coming years, nine years has passed since Atonement, Ronan is now a twenty-one year old young lady and it’s obvious in the intervening years, she has work to improve her craft.

The Academy Award controversy of 2016 was #OscarSoWhite, all of the nominations in the major acting categories went to white people and Saoirse Ronan was one of the nominees for best actress and besides being very very pale herself due to her Irish heritage; the film Brooklyn is about immigration, specifically immigration of white Europeans. Immigrants who are welcomed through the front door with a sponsor, a job waiting for them and housing accommodation all arranged as opposed to being smuggled across borders risking life and limb to get to America. This small unremarkable film which caught the attention of critics and audiences in the year 2015, where debate about migration, refugee crisis and immigration in the Western world reached boiling point, is not a coincidence. Brooklyn harkens back to a time where things were done properly. Where potential immigrants wrote to established immigrants in America requesting for sponsorship, where that sponsor finds the immigrant a job, a place to live and establish a small fund so that their immediate expenses are taken care of. There’s none of this ad hoc, disruptive, putting all of your belongings in a sack and risk life and limb in a rickety boat or crossing the vast desert hoping that there are prospects at the other side of the sea or border.

Eilis Lacey (pronounced Ali-sh) is a young girl from Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. She’s unable to find full time employment save for a part time job at a bakery on Sundays. She lives with her mother and older sister Rose, her father has passed away when she was a child. Because of her sister Rose’s stable employment as a bookkeeper for the local factory, she is able to give her mother and younger sister if a small but comfortable existence. Widows with children on their own in 1950s Ireland usually faced a life of economic uncertainty and hardship and the Laceys were able to avoid that fate. While Rose is quite established in her community, the same cannot be said for Eilis. Enniscorthy is totally uninspiring to Eilis. Since she can’t find stable employment, and her potential is wasting away in front of her, her next option is to find a nice man to marry, and none of the men in her hometown is to her liking. Rose, sensing Eilis’s unhappiness, writes Father Flood in New York to see about sponsoring Eilis in America. Father Flood was able find Eilis employment at a sales girl at a high end department store where she “can’t afford any of the things” and a boarding house in Brooklyn where she will live with other single girls. And just like that Rose booked a ticket for Eilis on the next steamer to America. She arrives at Ellis Island with all of her paperwork, and is waved through by an immigration official with a stern “welcome to America”.

The one part the movie did well was to depict the loneliness and homesickness of immigrants, regardless of where they are from. ‘Home’ may hold no prospects for them but it’s still home and home is always where a piece of your heart lies. No amount of Manhattan bright lights and skyscrapers can remove the longing of home. Eilis tries to be brave and go about her job everyday, but being a sales girl she lacks the personality for it, which is to plaster on a smile for every customer that walks in and sell whatever it is you are told to flog that day. Her manager Miss Fortini, a no-nonsense worldly woman gives Eilis tips on being a better saleswoman but when that fails, she calls Father Flood to the rescue. Father Flood enrolls in bookkeeping classes at night so she can work in an office one day and asks her to volunteer at the soup kitchen at the church to keep her more occupied. At the church soup kitchen she sees a different side of America, America’s discarded people. They are old, frail or disabled workers who built skyscrapers, bridges and roads but have been tossed out by capitalism (produce or die) and are now depending on soup kitchens to feed them. This was a shock to her system, that the men who built the glorious city skyline and the roads, bridges and tunnels in front of her are now barely eking out a living. She realizes what can happen to her too when she is old and feeble one day, and she’s just a woman whose worth is determined by who she marries.

It’s around the same time she meets a nice Italian boy Tony Fiorello at an Irish dance hall. Tony openly admits that he likes Irish girls and hangs around Irish dance halls hoping to meet a nice Irish girl. Tony takes a liking to Eilis right away and they begin to go out. Eilis’s feelings towards Tony is more complicated; while he’s sweet, kind and funny with “nice eyes”, and far better than any potential male suitors in Ireland, she’s hardly madly in love with him. To her, he’s simply good husband material. He comes from a nice family, he’s a plumber – he has upwardly mobile aspirations of owning a general contracting company with his brothers to build houses and he’s slightly less sexist than the average Irish boy at the time. She can see herself entering the middle class through Tony. She goes over to the Fiorello’s house for dinner, she is charmed by his family, especially his rascal younger brother, and the pasta cooked by Mama Fiorello is not bad either, her mind is semi-made up about marrying him if he should ever ask. As she is hitting her stride in America, she receives devastating news that her older sister Rose has died from an unspecified illness and her mother is not coping well on her own in Ireland. She decides to go back to Ireland for a visit with the intention of returning to Brooklyn and to Tony. But Tony isn’t satisfied and wants an ‘insurance policy’ and suggests that they get married in civil court but not tell their families yet. Tony suggesting marriage is his way of saying he wants to sleep with her and put his ‘stamp’ on her before she leaves for Ireland, so that if not out of love, but at least out of propriety and obligation, she’d return to him. She reluctantly agrees to the civil wedding and their marriage is consummated the night before she leaves for Ireland.

The Ireland she left behind wasn’t the same one when she returned to. She’s no longer just Rose’s younger sister. She’s Eilis, a ‘American’ independent woman, earning her own money and she also graduated from her bookkeeping class and is now certified to work as a bookkeeper. She even ‘rescues’ the factory her sister worked at by creating a payroll system where all the workers get paid on time with their overtime wages. She visits all of her old haunts, attends her best friend Nancy’s wedding, attends mass with her mother like a good Irish girl, even goes on dates with a local gentleman from a well off family and it just so happens that the gentleman’s parents are retiring to the countryside and is leaving their big house with staff to their son. Suddenly Eilis’s world in Ireland opened up to her. She even flirts with the idea of dumping Tony and staying in Ireland, after all, this was what she wanted for herself just over a year ago. Throughout this whole time she tells no one that she’s married to Tony Fiorello, including her mother, she leads on everyone that she’s still single. The only person she didn’t care to visit is Miss Kelly, her former employer at the bakery and being the gossipy and spiteful wench that she is, she finds out through the grapevine that Eilis is married to “an Italian” in New York and threatens to out her impropriety to everyone, especially now that it appears that he also has a boyfriend in Ireland. It is at this very moment Eilis realized why she got on a ship to go to America to begin with. She didn’t want to become a caricature of a spiteful, lonely small town gossip, who has nothing better to do but to monitor the morality of others. Even if she married the richest boy in town, she wouldn’t be able to escape this tedious fact of small town Irish life. She proudly announces to Miss Kelly that her name is now Eilis Fiorello and that she’s going back to her husband immediately. She also informs her own mother that night that she’s married, her mother was sad that her only child left was leaving her but was in a way happy for her. Mrs. Lacey said “if you married him” he must be a nice boy. She wrote a parting letter to the boy she went on dates with and took the next steamer back to New York and reunited with Tony.

That Eilis is a white Irish girl who seems to have more opportunities and her road to the middle class is more smooth than most brown or black immigrants in America is not lost on the audience. In today’s world, the ‘legal’ immigrants, those that come to America with work visas are reserved for the English speaking, well educated with advanced degrees who usually work in STEM fields, and that is a very small sliver of the immigrant population in the world. The majority of the world’s migrants or immigrants are indigent, poorly educated, fleeing desperate poverty or political oppression who can only work as unskilled laborers, it would be up to the host nations to educate and train them for skilled work. One of the complaints by employers in Germany was that the over one million refugees they accepted, language barrier aside, most do not have the skills to do the most basic jobs requiring rudimentary computer skills. In America today, no one is complaining that the likes of Eilis are ‘stealing’ American jobs. In some people’s fantasyland, the picture of the ideal immigrants are people like Eilis – the right combination of class, race and ‘hardworking’. The kind of immigrant that won’t ‘take advantage’ of the welfare state, the kind of immigrant who will ‘integrate’ well, the kind of immigrant that has a well established immigrant community to help other immigrants establish themselves. To some, the idea of immigration reform is not to enfranchise the 12 million undocumented persons in America but to filter through the 12 million people and cherry pick the youngest, brightest, English speaking with college degrees and no criminal histories for eligibility for citizenship. As for the rest, they would either be deported or live in the shadows the rest of their lives.

Many have praised the Australian and Canadian method of immigration, which is they accept any immigrant from any part of the world as long as they possess the skills they are are looking for – the cherry picking method again. They range from hairdressers, to accountants, to highly skilled STEM workers, and as long as you are qualified in any of the professions they list on their immigration forms you can immigrate to Australia or Canada. This way the only ‘discrimination’ is based on profession and skills, which is considered a fair discrimination. This is also a way to make the whole immigration process clean, technical and unsentimental. But the world’s migrants don’t fit in neat little boxes. Most of the world is desperately poor and conflict ridden where obtaining any consistent schooling or trade or skill is all but impossible. Judging from the treatment of the Australian authorities of their migrants on the pacific island nation of Nauru goes to show the inherent racism and discrimination of a skills and profession driven type of immigration policy. Those that do not possess the skills they are looking for, are therefore, treated like they are less than human.

3 thoughts on “Brooklyn (2015) – A Story about Immigration

  1. What I did like about this film was what for lack of a better word could be called its “economic determinism.” There’s only room for one more woman in Ellis’s town. That’s her sister. When her sister is alive, she’s unwanted. After her sister dies she’s required. The United States, by contrast, is at the height the postwar boom. There’s plenty of room for new immigrants. So she naturally succeeds, very easily. The contrast to today is striking. The ruling class doesn’t need any more new workers, at least ones that will form unions, or work their way up into the middle class. They want an easily exploited underclass. Thus they let 12 million Mexicans stay, but never quite let them become Americans.

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    1. I never got the sense that she was unwanted or superfluous. I got the sense that because rose is older and the breadwinner she was therefore more important than Eilis. The two sisters are close and their mom didn’t seem to play favorites. I think because there’s just not enough good jobs suitable for women in Ireland in 1950s and rose took the last good one in their town. The fact that she died and didn’t replace her position right away is telling.

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  2. I fell in love with “Brooklyn” because I felt I could very much relate to the story, with my maternal grandmother’s immigration to America and even though I’m Asian American. Rather than some grandiose mass migration fight onscreen that Hollywood seems to make it always about, it was (and is, so often) a quiet individualistic fight for better circumstances. Coming to America with a slight sliver of opportunity but somehow expanding those. I felt, too, that this film with its quiet voice, needed to come out NOW to coincide with the loud Trumpers against “darker skinned immigrants” to say, Hey! Remember where your family was too! And I, who am tired of “period pieces” and the same old tired stereotyped nostalgic depictions, really enjoyed the cinematography and costumes etc. I think the depiction of Ireland as bleak was because that’s how it seemed to the main character, not that it was a “smear” on the natural beauty of Ireland itself.

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