What to Watch: 32 Films, TV Series and Documentaries Featuring Immigrants

Man facing a television
Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

With thousands of options to choose from, do you still find yourself thinking, “there’s nothing to watch”? Maybe it’s because there are so many options that it’s hard to find the ones worth watching. Choose wisely. Just like the old adage, “you are what you eat,” the media we consume can influence who we become and how we see the world.

Research by the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project at USC Annenberg demonstrated that by and large immigrant characters on television don’t reflect reality. Instead, they tend to reinforce false stereotypes, distorting audiences’ understanding of the immigrant experience. Follow up research by Define American further showed that what we watch can influence our attitudes toward immigrants and even our behavior.

The good news is that it’s not all “junk food.” Despite a long history of immigrant characters being played by non-immigrants who don’t share their genuine accent, background or even ethnicity, more and more immigrants are able to tell their own, authentic stories. Instead of Mickey Rooney’s “yellowface” depiction of I. Y. Yunioshi Breakfast at Tiffiany’s, we have Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever.

To help you find those authentic stories, we have compiled a watchlist of comedies, dramas and documentaries that prominently feature immigrants and immigration storylines in film and TV. From goofy sitcoms to children’s animated shorts to intense docudramas, these stories highlight immigrants in a diverse set of contexts and perspectives. Happy viewing!

Films:

An American Tail

Animation, Drama/Comedy, Musical | Rated G | 1h 20min

An American Tail is a great introduction to 19th century immigration for children. When the “Mousekewitzes,” a family of animated mice living in Russia, move to the U.S., they deal with sweatshops, poverty and family separation. A band of villainous cats provide an allegory for oppression and bigotry for the mouse heroes. These tough topics become more palatable and accessible for children when filtered through the fun, friendly animation.

Where to watch An American Tail

Avalon

Drama | Rated PG | 2h 8min

Several generations of a Jewish Polish family wrestle with assimilation, family conflict and the American Dream in mid-20th century Baltimore. This film sensitively portrays both the cultural and the intergenerational differences that arise as the family chases prosperity and security. It also serves as a prequel to the movies Diner and Tin Men but focuses more closely on the immigrant experience.

Where to watch Avalon

Brooklyn

Drama | Rated PG13 | 1h 57min

This film, starring Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, follows an Irish immigrant to 1950s Brooklyn. Like many young women, she sets out in search of work and a better life but finds there are more obstacles than she expected. The film balances its portrayal of the residents of New York City, who are in turn inhospitable and supportive. It’s a family-friendly introduction to mid-century European immigration to the United States.

Where to watch Brooklyn

The Joy Luck Club

Drama | Rated R | 2hr 19min  

Based on the classic book by Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club traces the lives of four women who have immigrated from China and their daughters. By interweaving flashbacks to the lives of the women before they came to the U.S., the movie helps the viewer understand the push and pull factors that lead to immigration, as well as the challenges that are faced by people after they arrive. It also focuses on the unique experiences, challenges and strengths of female immigrants.

Where to watch The Joy Luck Club

Man Push Cart

Drama | Not Rated | 1hr 27min

A Pakistani immigrant struggles to make a living from a food cart in post-9/11 New York City. The film was praised by reviewers for its observational and realistic approach, giving the audience the impression that they’re peeking into the life of a real person. This film avoids idealizing or stereotyping its lead. It intentionally avoids the “exceptional immigrant” trope, instead encouraging the audience to respect a man performing menial labor for little respect or pay.

Where to watch Man Push Cart

The Namesake

Drama | Rated PG13 | 2hr 2min

Fans of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake will also enjoy this adaptation. Ashoke and Ashima are immigrants to New York from India, but their son, Gogol, feels largely cut off from his Indian heritage. His conflicting desires to push away and embrace his culture make up the core of this film. The Namesake offers a strong depiction of the tension between assimilating to a new culture and retaining a heritage culture.

Where to watch The Namesake

Persepolis

Animated, Drama | Rated PG13 | 1hr 36min

The famous graphic novel Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, was adapted into a feature-length animated film in 2007. Marjane, the Iranian protagonist, chafes under a regressive Iranian regime and longs for freedom, culminating in a move to the United States. This is an excellent film for exploring the variety of “push factors” that can lead immigrants to leave their countries of origin. This film is animated but not for children, as it explores both sexuality and violence under a totalitarian government.

Where to watch Persepolis

The Sun is Also a Star

Drama | Rated PG13 | 1h 40min

The Sun is Also a Star integrates the topic of immigration into a teen romance drama. Natasha is an undocumented immigrant about to be deported with her family to Jamaica. Daniel is falling in love with her. The teens have a short window to navigate family conflicts, their personal differences and an unforgiving immigration system. This is a great film for building empathy with a capable, likeable protagonist who happens to be undocumented, especially for teens who might relate to the teen leads.

Where to watch The Sun is Also a Star

Under the Same Moon

Drama | Rated PG13 | 1h 44min  

In this movie, a child immigrates from Mexico to the United States by himself to rejoin his mother. Along the way, he encounters both people who seek to take advantage of him and people who seek to help him. While told from the perspective of a child, this film deals with some heavier themes and is more appropriate for older kids.

Where to watch Under the Same Moon

Wind

Animation, Drama | Rated G | 0h 8min  

This Pixar short was designed as a metaphor for the family immigration story of the writer and creator, Edwin Chang. A child and his grandmother live at the bottom of a deep chasm and plan their escape. The grandmother must make sacrifices to ensure her grandson can have a better life. Wind is a fanciful introduction to immigration and children might have to unpack it with an adult in order to grasp the themes.

Where to watch Wind

Minari

Drama | Rated PG13 | 1h 55min  

Three generations of a Korean-American immigrant family attempt to start a farm in the 1980s. They struggle with the land, their new, mostly white community, and the intergenerational and intercultural conflicts within their family. Minari shares an underrepresented chapter of Asian-American history.

Where to watch Minari

TV Series:

Bob Hearts Abishola

Comedy | Rated TV PG | 30min

This sitcom follows Bob, a U.S.-born entrepreneur, who falls in love with Abishola, a Nigerian-born nurse, after she cares for him following a heart attack. The show mines their cultural differences for humor, but respects both characters’ and their families’ beliefs. Bob Hearts Abishola is a rare depiction of Black immigrants, who are infrequently represented in media despite making up one in 10 Black Americans.

Where to watch Bob Hearts Abishola

Fresh off the Boat

Comedy | Rated TV PG | 30min  

Based on Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh off the Boat, this sitcom follows a pair of immigrants from Taiwan as they navigate raising children and starting a “cowboy-themed” restaurant in Florida. The show is sympathetic and thoughtful in its portrayal of the perspectives of both the immigrant parents and the more “Americanized” children. Issues of assimilation and representation are prominent. When this sitcom premiered in 2015, it was only the second U.S. sitcom to focus on an Asian-American family.

Where to watch Fresh off the Boat

Jane the Virgin

Drama/Comedy | Rated TV14 | 1hr  

The American remake of the popular Venezuelan telenovela features three generations of a Venezuelan-American family in Florida. The culture clash between the traditional, immigrant matriarch, Alba, and her more Americanized child and grandchild is a central plotline of the show. Alba’s slow, difficult progression toward achieving her citizenship was praised in particular by Opportunity Agenda for both its realism and how it didn’t wholly define her multi-dimensional character.

Where to watch Jane the Virgin

Kim’s Convenience

Comedy | Rated TV14 | 30min

A Korean-American immigrant family running a convenience store may sound stereotypical, but this Canadian sitcom shows the full humanity behind the archetype. The characters wrestle with cultural differences, discrimination, family conflict and more while keeping the family store afloat. The show is adapted from a play of the same name, written by Ins Choi, himself an immigrant from Korea to Canada. Choi called the story a “love letter to [his] parents and to all first-generation immigrants who call Canada their home.”

Where to watch Kim’s Convenience

Little America

Drama/Comedy | Rated TV14 | 30min  

This anthology show, created in part by actor and immigrant from India Kumail Nanjiani, sets out to depict a diverse set of immigrant narratives based on true stories. Eight half-hour episodes follow eight different immigrants through important chapters in their lives. Characters include the child of deported business owners, a gay Syrian refugee seeking safety, and a Chinese mother wrestling with her and her family’s understanding of the American Dream. The show made headlines when, in a moment of political resonance, filming had to be reworked to accommodate a Syrian actor who was unable to come to the U.S. to work under current immigration policy.

Where to watch Little America

Master of None

Drama/Comedy | Rated TV MA | 30min  

Stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show features a diverse array of characters, including the main character’s parents, immigrants from India, and a friend whose parents immigrated from Taiwan. Ansari, who plays the lead, dedicates a standout episode, “Parents,” to exploring the migration stories of his father and his friend’s father. Children of immigrants watching the show responded to the episode with enthusiasm, saying that they had “never seen anything so relatable on television before.” It’s a story that rings unsurprisingly true, given that Ansari cast his own mother and father in the parental roles.

Where to watch Master of None

Never Have I Ever

Comedy | Rated TV14 | 30min 

Mindy Kaling’s semi-autobiographical Netflix show follows the daughter of Indian immigrants as she navigates sex, adolescence and the loss of her father. In an interview, the showrunner described having a writers’ room with multiple children of immigrants who contributed authentic anecdotes and details to make the story more compelling. This show has the potential to be a funny, relatable story that could connect teenagers with an experience removed from their own.

Where to watch Never Have I Ever

One Day at a Time

Comedy | Rated TV PG | 30min 

This Netflix reboot of the classic 1970s sitcom focuses on three generations of a Cuban-American family, the matriarch of which is an immigrant. The show depicts a loving, close-knit family wrestling with issues of mental illness, addiction and sexuality. Fans launched a campaign to save the show after Netflix cancelled it, citing its compelling and unfortunately rare depiction of a Latinx family, leading to the show’s resurrection on Pop TV. It can serve as a lighthearted introduction to the immigrant experience.

Where to watch One Day at a Time

Party of Five

Drama | Rated TV14 | 60min

The writers of Party of Five updated the premise of the classic 1970s television show in this reboot. Instead of losing their parents in a car accident, the five Accosta siblings are left adrift when their parents are deported. Family separation is a hot button issue, and this series sensitively depicts the human fallout of the family’s rift. The show aired just one season before getting cancelled, but it packed a lot of thoughtful discussion of contemporary immigration issues in its 10 episodes.

Where to watch Party of Five

Ramy

Drama/Comedy | Rated TV MA | 30min

Ramy features a family of Muslim, Egyptian immigrants living in New Jersey. Ramy, the title character, grapples with coming of age as a millennial, immigrant Muslim-American. Over the course of the series, he struggles to reconcile his faith, sexuality and family traditions. Creator Ramy Youssef, himself a child of Egyptian immigrants, plays the title role. He also shares the focus with the rest of his fictionalized family, giving a more Americanized, feminist sister and a closeted uncle opportunities to share their perspectives on the Muslim immigrant experience.

Where to watch Ramy

Sunnyside

Comedy | Rated TV14 | 30min

Kal Penn, the son of Indian immigrants, created a sitcom that follows a group of immigrants in New York City. He also stars, drawing on his real-life political experience working in President Obama’s administration to portray a disgraced former politician attempting to regain political favor by coaching former constituents on their paths to becoming citizens. The show balances goofy fish out of water humor with the very real perils the immigrant students face, including poverty, discrimination and ICE enforcement.

Where to watch Sunnyside

Superstore

Comedy | Rated TV14 | 30min

Superstore is a kooky workplace sitcom that takes on some big topics. Fan-favorite character Mateo, played by Nico Santos, is a queer, undocumented, Filipino immigrant whose ongoing search for stability and legal status becomes a prominent plot thread. Santos, a gay Filipino immigrant himself, says he received an outpouring of messages from people who saw themselves in his character. In interviews, Superstore writers have discussed reaching out to immigrants and immigration professionals to refine their plotlines. The show isn’t afraid to get overtly political, but the focus remains on portraying the characters as full, funny human beings.

Where to watch Superstore

Transplant

Drama | 1h 

The lead of this NBC medical drama is a Syrian refugee. When Dr. Bashir flees Syria for Canada, he’s stuck working in the kitchen of a Middle Eastern restaurant before a chance encounter with an injured hospital worker lets him prove his medical skills. Even once he returns to working in a hospital, the show takes care to explore his struggles as a doctor in a new culture and the challenges he faces as a refugee. The show captures the reality that immigrants are overrepresented in both the food and health care industry, as well as the uphill battle many immigrants face in translating their education and credentials to a new country.

Where to watch Transplant

Documentaries and Docuseries:

I Learn America

Not Rated | 1h 30min

I Learn America is a kid-friendly introduction to five children of immigrants adapting to their new country. Facing History and Ourselves developed an accompanying learning guide to help students learn from the film. The film and its supplemental educational materials prioritizes “youth-led” storytelling. This documentary is aimed at young people but could also be helpful for teachers seeking to better understand and serve their immigrant students.

Where to watch I Learn America

Immigration Battle

Not Rated | 1hr 54min 

This two hour Frontline documentary delves into the policy side of immigration. It aired in 2015, and therefore doesn’t cover many key developments in the immigration landscape since then, but it provides a clear-eyed look at how immigration policy is shaped and settled behind closed doors. Unlike most of the films listed here, it focuses more on the policymakers who shape immigration policy than the immigrants affected by it.

Where to watch Immigration Battle

Immigration Nation

Rated TV-MA | 1hr

Documentarians embedded within Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) for years to capture this series’ footage. The mechanics of the organization’s enforcement actions are shown from start to finish in stark, sometimes upsetting detail, and the human cost is evident. This series is appropriate for anyone seeking to understand how contemporary immigration practices are carried out.

Where to watch Immigration Nation

Liberty: Mother of Exiles

Rated PG | 1hr 23min

This feature-length film traces the history of American immigration through the history of the Statue of Liberty. The famous figurehead has been a symbol of welcome and a site of protests, both of which the film examines thoughtfully. The documentary also explores the meaning of the poem inscribed on the statue’s base, “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, from which the film derives its name: “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles.”

Where to watch Liberty: Mother of Exile

Living Undocumented

Rated TV MA | 45min

This series follows eight undocumented immigrants in the U.S. It also interviews immigration attorneys who tackle common questions about undocumented immigrants, like, “Why don’t they come the right way and get in line?”. In a piece for Time magazine, Selena Gomez shared that she was drawn to join the project as a producer because members of her own family came to the U.S. without documentation and she recognized their stories in the footage she was shown.

Where to watch Living Undocumented

The New Americans

Not Rated | 1h 

PBS’s seven-part documentary series takes an unusual approach, offering minimal narration or interviews as it tracks the lives of immigrants over four years. Instead, the immigrants to the United States are observed at work, at home and over the course of the rest of their daily lives, affording the viewer an intimate and personal look at their experiences. It doesn’t explicitly delve into politics or policy, instead creating a humanizing chronicle of individual lives.

Where to watch New Americans

Strangers in Town

Not rated | 43min

For anyone looking for a portrayal of what it means to be a “welcoming community,” this film could provide some answers. Garden City, Kansas was challenged and ultimately strengthened by several unexpected waves of migration. The response of U.S.-born residents runs the gamut, but the benefits of welcoming their new neighbors becomes clear.

Where to watch Strangers in Town

Underwater Dreams

Not Rated | 1h 26min

Four undocumented immigrant teens collaborated in an underwater robot competition, went up against a team from MIT and won. This documentary film follows their progress, setbacks and eventual triumph. It’s a warm, inspiring look at the contributions and accomplishments of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The story was also the inspiration for the fictionalized film Spare Parts.

Where to watch Underwater Dreams

Waking Dream

Not Rated | 52min

Filmmaker Theo Rigby followed six DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, also known as Dreamers, as they work, learn and pursue their dreams. The film provides an intimate look at a group of young people who are often treated like political pawns. To learn more about the project, watch our webinar with Rigby as he shares stories and discusses how teachers can use this material in the classroom or curriculum.

Where to watch Waking Dreams

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