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Hollywood’s Diversity Problem and Undocumented Immigrants


“One Day at a Time” on Netflix features Ariela Barer (center, with Isabella Gomez, left, and Justina Machado) as a child of deported parents.


Immigration is a part of Hollywood’s story just as much as it is America’s. In the early years of cinema, many of the first regular moviegoers were working-class immigrants. Immigrants founded major studios like Paramount and Warner Bros. in the early decades of the 20th century. And over the course of two world wars, talented directors and movie stars — mostly from Europe — poured into this country.

Yet, the story of coming to America seems to have fallen off multiplex marquees at a time when immigration has become one of the most contested issues in politics. Sorely missing are movies about undocumented immigrants, an absence that is glaring even in an industry that has struggled to keep up with the times.

Reporters and documentarians are sharing the tales of children and young adults brought to this country at a young age, but in the five years since President Barack Obama issued the executive order that established Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or the DACA program, no major studio has produced or released a film about an undocumented character. As some of the country’s major storytellers, why don’t the studios tell these remarkable stories?

Television has proved more receptive. In the Netflix series “One Day at a Time,” a supporting character named Carmen (Ariela Barer) tries to live with the show’s family after her parents are deported. In the CW series “Jane the Virgin,” the family’s matriarch, Abuela Alba (Ivonne Coll), goes through the process of applying for her green card and the show’s star, Gina Rodriguez, is developing two shows centered on undocumented immigrants.

Immigrant stories once appealed to studio executives. After all, they released narratives like Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II,” Elia Kazan’s “America America” and Barry Levinson’s “Avalon.” These stories didn’t focus on the legality of their arrival, just that their characters made the difficult journey and lived in America. Several notable directors, like Mr. Kazan, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, came to the United States from different countries, while others, like Mr. Coppola, Mr. Levinson, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, were the children or grandchildren of immigrants.

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