Not all immigrant stories begin on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Immigration should probably not be treated as a given in movies. Too many films – comedies, dramas, many, many gangster pictures – choose to begin after the immigration process is finished, telling a fish-out-of-water story about what it means to start anew and pursue the American dream. Too few films focus on the painful process of getting to America in the first place. Even setting aside the moral obligation we have to help those less fortunate than ourselves, if we are to push a message of inclusion and acceptance among those prejudiced by fear, then maybe we should change the type of stories we tell. It’s time for movies like Dirty Pretty Things to become our cultural touch-point for illegal immigrants.
Released in 2002, Dirty Pretty Things stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou and offers an unflinching look at the London underground. While the film rests on the skeleton of a modern film noir – Ejiofor discovers a human heart in the toilet of his hotel and finds himself swept up in a black market for the organs of illegal immigrants – the film uses this as a springboard for its bleaker examination of the immigrant experience. What these two characters are running from weighs just as heavily on the film as its thriller components; as with the best genre films, the elements of suspense only heighten the impact of the film’s social message, and vice versa.
Despite sharing an illegal status, Ejiofor and Tautou’s characters have very little in common. Ejiofor’s Okwe was a doctor in Nigeria before he fled a political struggle and traveled to London; he is now an undocumented, splitting his days as a taxi driver and a bellhop and being paid under the table. Dirty Pretty Things was a breakout role for star Chiwetel Ejiofor, but one that came from a very personal place. While Ejiofor was born in England, both of his parents are Nigerian immigrants and travel back regularly, giving Ejiofor insight into the character that he felt was absolutely necessary to play the role right. “I don’t know if he’s a character you can invent as an actor,” Ejiofor told The Guardian in 2002.
On the flipside is Senay, a Turkish asylum seeker who is legally allowed to be in the United Kingdom but prevented from working until her case has been finalized. Unable to live on the meager salary offered by welfare, Senay bounces between jobs, always once step ahead of the Immigration officers desperate for a reason to kick her out of the country. Senay is also a practicing Muslim who refuses to be seen in a private space alone with Okwe and turns down any of his dinner offerings that are not halal. As the violence surrounding Senay and Okwe escalates, the film makes a sobering link between her faith and her virginity. Her bosses are quick to use her immigration situation as a form of sexual blackmail against her – up to and including rape – when they realize the precarious nature of her asylum status.
Not everything in the film is bleak, however. As the film unfolds, a gentle love story begins to emerge between these two characters. Despite their different backgrounds, Okwe discovers that he’s willing to confront parts of his past to offer Senay a chance at a better life. For her part, Senay pushes back on Okwe’s meager expectations, reminding him that he deserves more than his meager lifestyle and perpetual exhaustion. Their gentle flirtation also highlights the film’s bold diversity, a melting pot of primarily non-white characters where race and nationality is secondary to the quality of their actions. Okwe in particular seems an impossibly noble human, an attempt by the filmmakers to undo a century of negative racial stereotypes in a single film.
For all the conversations surrounding Senay’s faith, however, the film’s most poignant religious moment does not even involve her. As Okwe struggles with anger and guilt at the discovery of London’s organ black market, he visits with his friend Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), an employee at the local hospital. Okwe paces the mortuary frantically; Yi calmly works on the clothing of a dead Chinese man with a yarn and thread. “I cut off his buttons so his spirit can escape,” Yi explains. “I’m sewing up his pockets so he can’t take his bad luck with him to the spirit world. If he’s an atheist, I’m ruining a suit no one will ever see. If he’s a Buddhist, I’m giving him eternal happiness for the price of a piece of thread.”
Yi understands the Buddhist religion well enough to know that a simple piece of clothing has immense ramifications on the afterlife. The price may only be the piece of the thread, but the cultural exposure his actions imply – the willingness to embrace another belief system, even if it is one that Yi himself does not share – ensures that a complete stranger will not suffer needlessly when Yi could advocate on his behalf. Not every gesture of acceptance in the film need come with a grand gesture or a major plot point; even the little scenes in Dirty Pretty Things remind us that each character we see is, in fact, part of our collectively humanity.
While Dirty Pretty Things attempts to bring compassion to the plight of illegal immigrants around the world, watching the film again only highlights the tenuous nature of the current laws. When Senay is raped by the head of the organ smuggling operation, she asks for – and receives – an emergency contraceptive pill from a friend of Okwe’s to ensure that she does not become pregnant. At the films’ end, she boards a plane to New York City with a new name and a new backstory. We can celebrate her escape even while knowing it took her moving outside the legal system to remain safe; there are countless current legal immigrants to America – men and women of the Muslim faith who have spent years working to receive asylum – that face a future where access to contraception and America are no sure thing.
Ultimately, Dirty Pretty Things is a film about good people in an impossible situation and one that demands compassion and understanding from its viewers. Senay may be from Turkey, but her struggles to make it to America – and the complicated ways in which her faith defines her character – give a face to the countless real-life individuals trying to travel to this country from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Fictionalized or not, to watch a film like Dirty Pretty Things is to see an immigrant story that does not shy away from the pain and suffering so many experience just to obtain a fraction of the liberties that we take for granted. It may not be a movie that single-handedly changes minds, but it will hopefully be one that chips away at a lifetime of negative portrayals of immigrants and Muslims in film.