They Came to America: USA Through Foreign POV

Insights from filmmakers and movie characters who visited but didn’t want to live here.
Coming To America
By  · Published on July 7th, 2017

In the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville, some of the best movies about America are the ones from an outsider’s perspective. Hollywood was built mostly by immigrants, and especially in the early days many of the greatest “American” filmmakers had actually come here from Germany, Italy, Turkey, and England. That foreign-born POV has its effect, for sure, though the filmmakers who don’t settle in America can have greater insight by remaining removed from the observed place. So can the foreign characters who aren’t part of the immigration narrative. None are really done for serious political-scientific study, but they do sometimes feel so socially relevant.

When I think of movies about foreigners coming to America, I first think of the trend during the ’80s when characters from all over the world and beyond took Manhattan specifically. Most of these, such as Coming to America, “Crocodile” Dundee, and Splash, focused on the visitors themselves as fish out of water. The social comedy is limited to how these characters’ exotic cultural norms (most of which are totally made up) clash with ours, and any observations about America have to do with their lack of familiarity with LGBTQ persons (including a possible trans woman in Coming to America) and encounters with criminals that were cliches of NYC portrayals of the time.

The Brother from Another Planet is another movie about an outsider in New York, but this one is a space alien, so he’s also observing Earthlings in general. Written and directed by John Sayles, an American director with a keen mind for social issues, the movie is much more of a subtle satire. Despite being new to the whole planet, the alien primarily experiences an American immigrant narrative, even landing near Ellis Island, though because of his resemblance to black humans, he also primarily bears and witnesses the treatment of African Americans, positive and negative, by white people and by others of their own race. In the end, the alien may have stayed put on Earth, but the film would be the same had he been shown leaving the planet, too.

While immigrant stories have tackled the American Dream, for better or worse, with myths of opportunity and streets paved with gold (or cheese), the visitors and full-on outsiders tend to see the US negatively as a place of racism, xenophobia, egocentrism, consumerism, and vapidity. Lars von Trier, who hasn’t ever actually set foot in America, made three movies with harsh observances of our treatment of people unlike ourselves. In Dancer in the Dark it’s a poor, naive foreign woman, in Dogville it’s an outsider in need who finds herself in a small, secluded town, and in Manderlay, it’s the continuation of enslaving black people through a loophole long after the passing of the 13th Amendment.

Thirty years earlier, directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard were interested in America, and they did travel the country but probably didn’t need to, considering their apparent contempt for the USA. We saw the latter show some of this in his early portrayals of Americans, notably the caricatures by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina’s characters in Pierre le Fou. It’s easier to get the look of the American landscape right than a feel for the American people, a la Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. It’s fair to say that Godard, meanwhile, was only ever interested in tense aspects of America, from the crime films he loved and mimicked to, particularly with One P.M., the cultural revolution — he’d hoped for more of a political revolution — of the late ’60s.

Antonioni defended his take on America thusly for the New York Times in 1970:

It’s very easy for an American to say to me, ‘You’re an Italian; you don’t know this country. How dare you talk about it!’ But I wasn’t trying to explain the country — a film is not a social analysis, after all. I was just trying to feel something about America, to gain some intuition. If I were an American, they would say I was taking artistic license, but because I’m a foreigner, they say I am wrong. But in some ways a foreigner’s judgment may be … not better, necessarily, but more objective— illuminating precisely because it is a little different.

Of course, I didn’t say everything that can be said about America. My film touches on just a few themes, a few places. Somebody can say this is missing or that is missing. Well, of course is. The story is certainly a simple one. Nonetheless, the content is actually very complex. It is not a question of reading between the lines, but one of reading between the images.

That’s good reasoning for any foreign filmmaker or foreigner portrayal in America, not unlike von Trier’s oft-expressed defense that one doesn’t have to go to the US to make a movie set there any more than Michael Curtiz had to go to Morocco to make Casablanca. Of course, von Trier’s trio of American movies is a lot more a point of view and criticism about the country than Casablanca is for Casablanca. Antonioni and von Trier’s defenses would seem to work better for fiction than nonfiction, yet Godard’s film, a collaboration finished by partners D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock after Godard abandoned it, is proof that the same is true with documentary.

As is Goran Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which presents footage from Swedish coverage of the Black Power movement in America. Criticisms of the doc, mainly from misled moviegoers, concentrated on its not being a more comprehensive history. But it was never meant to be, given the limitations of the archives the material comes from. “I’m not telling the story of the Black Power movement,” Olsson told me in an interview for Spout (IndieWire) in 2011. “I’m telling the story of the Swedish perspective on the Black Power movement at the time. And in the film, Erykah Badu says, ‘We have to tell our own story because if we don’t tell our own story we get twisted.’ I agree with that, but this is not their story. This is a story that takes place in Sweden, so to speak.”

Obviously, there are also many foreign films where Americans are the enemy, whether those works are anti-US propaganda from enemy nations or from places with a great dislike of the country. Bong Joon-ho’s movies aren’t necessarily anti-American, but The Host and Okja are not too favorable toward our military or corporations. Then there’s the notion that American girls may be easily pursued by foreign visitors, with Love Actually‘s one sequence set in the US involving an English tourist easily attracting beautiful women in a bar, a vignette that could take its name from the American-set movie Earth Girls Are Easy but with “Earth” once again really just meaning the US.

Negative portrayals of America by outsiders aren’t exactly a bad thing, especially if they’re set in futures imagining the US becoming more fascistic, such as Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop and Starship Troopers or Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park. And the best movie both by a foreign filmmaker (then still not living in America) about the US and about a foreigner temporarily visiting America is arguably Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, a look at the American Dream fantasy and how it doesn’t pan out for a German man just out of prison and not faring well at home. The film eccentrically observes the Midwest as many of America’s own filmmakers do, perhaps in part because even artists born in the US see that part of the country as foreign, and with a foreigner’s perspective.

Has there been any cinematic equivalent to de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”? Nothing so substantial, but one that is close is Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, a comedic documentary by American director Larry Charles that’s written and produced and stars English actor Sacha Baron Cohen as the fictional titular Kazakhstani visitor. It takes a made-up foreign character and the guise of a documentary to candidly uncover the true America, including the genuine racism, xenophobia, and egocentrism of real people duped into being — or allowed to be — themselves, in a way perhaps not seen since that mid-19th century history course staple.

Such a work will probably not be achieved for many decades, either, as the formats of both efforts aren’t easily replicated nor are they as called for after they’ve accomplished their goal of exposure. But we’ll probably see some lighter correspondents in the meantime.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.