Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave

Diana Drumm is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy. She examines the illusion of the American Dream in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and James Gray's The Immigrant.

“I believe in America.” This opening line from The Godfather resonates with us not just because of its place in cinema but also the bittersweet concept behind those words and the scene that follows—that America is a hope or belief separate from its reality. America has gone through many shifts, all shrouded in a sense of higher idealism, from the first pilgrims fleeing religious persecution to the early pioneers fulfilling their manifest destiny to the modern day “pursuit of happiness” encapsulated in the marketable phrase “The American Dream.” Admittedly, this is an establishment-friendly, traditionally White Anglo-Saxon narrative that excludes a very large percentage of Americans and stands in direct opposition to what many consider the real American Dream, the idea of starting with nothing and being able to become something.

This year at the New York Film Festival, many films dealt with characters on the sidelines of this American Dream. In 12 Years A Slave, a free man is sold into slavery. In The Immigrant, a Polish woman is held back from immigration and enters the country illegally. Both films are potently aware of the American Dream, but for one reason or another (or many), their characters, despite being on American soil, never quite make it to the “land of milk and honey.”

Lupita Nyong'o and Alfre Woodard in 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave begins with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejifor) living his American Dream: a nuclear family, a house with a front lawn, and enough pay between him and his wife to maintain both. In Saratoga Springs, he is a respected member of the community. Unfortunately, it is 1841, Solomon is African American and raging bigots can travel. Not only travel but, in seeing an immediate profit, they can kidnap, transport across state lines, and then sell to the highest bidder. After being persuaded by two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam), who by all appearances looked like gentlemen, to travel down to D.C. to play the violin for a handsome fee, Solomon is drugged and sold into slavery. In a matter of weeks, Solomon goes from citizen to kidnap victim to cargo to another man’s property.

During his years of nearly insurmountable suffering, Solomon resolves to survive, if not escape one day. In the midst of hard labor and lashings, glimmers of hope appear every so often, only to be dashed almost immediately. On the slave boat, he and two other men conspire to rise up against their captors as free men, only to have one of their trio (Michael K. Williams) shot, killed and “buried at sea” for little more than trying to waylay a sexual assault on one of the women onboard. Years down the line and grasping at the little hope allotted to him, Solomon meets a white day laborer (Garret Dillahunt) and, sensing some sympathy, asks him to send a letter to his family, offering the laborer all the money he has in the world. The laborer agrees but then confesses the scheme to their boss, leaving Solomon in hot water, without any money, and having failed at the meager aspiration of letting his family know that he is still alive. It takes 12 years and countless emotional and physical scars, but Solomon is finally returned home, having endured a nearly unimaginable amount of cruelty at the hands of fellow Americans and within the country’s legal and social confines.

Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

Set roughly 80 years later, James Gray’s The Immigrant begins with Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) traveling to the United States in search of a better life than the one she and her sister had left behind in Poland. Considering that they witnessed both of their parents being beheaded by soldiers, anything should have been an improvement. Unfortunately, Ewa hadn’t factored obsessive-compulsive pimps into her dreams of America. Once on Ellis Island, her sister is thrown in the illness ward and she is deemed unfit to enter the country after a trumped-up charge of questionable morals. Seeing America beyond her grasp, Ewa reaches out with all of her might and grabs onto the kindness of a stranger. This stranger offers her shelter, food, and a job. You can probably see where this is heading… Rather than throwing her in chains like Solomon Northup’s abusers, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) uses mind games and emotional manipulation (including his maddening love for her) to turn Ewa into a prostitute. Holding onto the hope that she can raise enough money to get her sister out of Ellis Island, Ewa plays along with Bruno’s schemes, wracked with Catholic guilt and a sense of worthlessness.

For one brief shining moment, Ewa catches another glimpse of the American Dream in the form of Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner). During his show, Orlando calls Ewa (wearing a Statue of Liberty costume at the time) onto the stage and asks her what she was looking for in America, to which she replies, simply and bittersweetly, “Happiness.” After they develop strong feelings for each other, Orlando promises to take her out West and away from Bruno. Of course, this being a great melodrama, Bruno stabs Orlando, not only killing Ewa’s chance to get out of Bruno’s control but also her illusion of the American Dream. Still looking to survive, Ewa stays by Bruno. In the end, Ewa is reunited with her sister, but it’s uncertain whether she will ever find the happiness that she has struggled so long for, let alone the American Dream.

Solomon and Ewa believed in America. One was born here, the other moved here. One lived a near-idyllic existence with freedom, work, and a family. The other came to America with little more than nothing. Both suffered at the hands of warped, albeit powerful, men and managed to survive. In pursuit of the American Dream, one may get waylaid by false promises, but in 12 Years A Slave and The Immigrant, the key to happiness is survival, itself.