Director Gregory Nava (“Selena,” “Mi Familia”) takes a graceful, often moving look at the U.S. immigrant experience in “The American Tapestry.” Showtime-produced, digitally shot feature docu is primarily a broadcast item, but should also prove a staple classroom introduction to our multicultural past, present and future.
After an initial rush of images and voices defining the American Dream — an economic one, to most — pic crosscuts between two now-elderly emigres who found very different welcomes here. Fleeing Nazi persecution, Polish Jew Murray Schneider recalls the “joyous feeling” of reuniting with his family at Ellis Island. But Li Keng Wong, forced to lie to Immigration officials by Chinese-exclusionary laws, remembers West Coast arrival point Angel Island as a frightening, prisonlike place where unwanted “Chinks” could be “quarantined” for years, and deported even then.
Migrating within the U.S., devout Baptist Janie Chatman left Alabama (where her father was born a slave) for the “promised land” of 1940s Chicago, only to find racism and segregation there as well — albeit hypocritically better “hidden.” White Irish-American and WWII vet Walter McNall found the “perfect,” prosperous all-American good life in sunny post-WWII SoCal suburbia. But he and his wife hit the sole sour note here by kvetching about newfangled multilingual signage in their rapidly changing downtown and immigrants who don’t “like the same kinds of things we like.”
Final profile portrays young Mixtec Indian Eva Canseco, who left her village in Oaxaca, Mexico, to work in a Tijuana “NAFTA factory” at paltry wages. We see her leaving two young children behind for a risky, illegal U.S. border crossing — hoping that the American Dream can eventually better their future, too.
Chatman articulates pic’s cautious melting-pot idealism by noting that, to her, this elusive dream means “one day we’ll all come together as brother and sister.” Subjects’ emotional journeys are diverse and inspiring, though there’s a somewhat politically correct imbalance in using the Waspy, Disneyland-visiting McNalls as the lone voices of complacency and intolerance.
Feature ends with a dizzying, wistful overview of myriad U.S. lifestyles and landscapes. It’s a real catch-in-the-throat, “God Bless America” moment — Nava deserves credit for achieving that impact as part and parcel of a critical yet celebratory treatment, one that’s generally devoid of soapboxing or sentimentality. (Barbara Martinez-Jitner directed the Mexican sequences, which stand separately after interwoven prior segs; it could easily be excerpted as a classroom short.)
Exemplary editing by Sandy Guthrie pulls together interviews, period photos and newsreels into a rich package. Feature eschews narration, wisely letting various principal and subsidiary interviewees lead us to our own conclusions. Classical composer John Adams’ original score is a notable notch above usual docu standards. Polished tech package will shine best on the small screen, especially some outstandingly beautiful shots of coast-to-coast scenic wonders.