For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of
lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not
partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the
orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers,
providing them with food and clothing. You shall also
love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land
“…for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Matthew 25:42-45
Many critics have been hard on writer-director Wayne Kramer’s immigration issue film, one even ac cusing it of being exploitive. For this reviewer it is definitely a flawed film, but yet a useful one in that it brings to the fore an issue that was lost in the Presidential campaign, and especially since the near economic meltdown that has beset our nation and the larger world. And yet the injustices which the film explores go on and on, and will do so unless some of our attitudes toward and laws regarding immigrants change.
Crossing Over will remind you of Traffic and Crash in that it is an ensemble-cast film interweaving a number of stories about characters on both sides of the law and of the debate over the issue. Some of the stories are really vignettes that give us few details of the character’s, thus depending upon, as some have charged, viewers falling back on stereotypes to fill in the details—stereotypes of Mexicans and Middle Easterners especially. However, to his credit, Wayne Kramer shows us that those who share the American Dream are not only those who must learn English, but also middle class Green Card holders out to better themselves in this land of opportunity.
Max Brogan is the character we meet first, an agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE for short). He mentions that he has a grown daughter, but we are not told why he now lives alone watching Nature Channel documentaries. We are shown by his worn face that his job of leading a squad of ICE officers in raids on factories where illegal employees work has taken a toll on him, though this has not led to cynicism. Instead of becoming numbed to the suffering of those whom they arrest, he has grown more sensitive: when he enquires about the health of an ill man whom he previous had arrested, the clerk retorts, “Everything is a G.D. humanitarian crisis to you.” In Max’s current raid he is about to pass over a young Mexican woman hiding behind a garment rack, but a fellow officer who suddenly appears makes this impossible. Mireya (Alice Braga) pleads with him to look up her young son whom she has left in the care of a neighbor. Aware that he is being watched, Max crumples up and throws down the scrap of paper on which she has scrawled her phone number. Later, Max returns to the parking lot, retrieves the paper, and not only looks up the boy, but on his day off takes him across the border and delivers him to his grandparents. Max is bi-lingual, a skill which helps him not only in this scene, but throughout the story.
Brogan’s ICE partner Hamid Baraheri (a terrific Cliff Curtis), a Naturalized Iranian, invites Max to the party to celebrated his father’s coming Naturalization ceremony. There we see Hamid’s American-born sister Zahra (Melody Khazae) whose adoption of sensual American clothing is but a small part of her disgrace within the family—she is a promiscuous drug addict as well.
Taslima Jahangir (Summer Bishil), a teenager who with her parents are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, reads an essay that she has written about the Sept.11 bombers to her class, Although she denies taking their side, she enrages her classmates, who will not listen to her argument that this was a desperate act by those who were not being heard by the world. “Their voices were heard!” she says. Almost before one can say “Al Qaeda,” the ICE agents are breaking into her home, seizing her diary and computer, and hauling her off to jail. Her immigration defense attorney Denise Frankel (Ashley Judd) sees her as a too-outspoken teenager, but the immigration authorities see only a would-be terrorist. Rather than believe that the terrorist sites she has visited were for research purposes, they interpret her visiting them as her becoming one.
Another teenager in trouble is a 15 year-old Korean boy Yong Kim (Justin Chon) who, like the one in Gran Torino, hangs out with a gang of thugs because of their intimidation, rather than desire. When they make him accompany them in robbing a convenience store (also run by Koreans) matters get way out of hand, ending with the deaths of the four gang members and Kim staring down the barrel of Hamid while holding his own gun against the head of one of the female clerks. Hamid had been shopping at the back of the store when the thugs entered and killed the owner. In the ensuing gun battle the experienced ICE agent shot the four gang members and confronts Kim with the hostage, telling the boy that he can put down his gun or die—the lives of all three hinge upon the boy’s decision.
Gavin Kossef (Jim Sturgess) and his girlfriend Claire Sheperd (Alice Eve) are separating because both of their Green Cards have expired, making it too dangerous, they believe to stay together. Gavin is a would be British rock musician who has managed to get part-time work as a music teacher at a Jewish school, thanks to a friend (or relative?). He hatches a plan to pretend that he is Jewish who is needed by the school and synagogue. But, knowing just a few phrases of Hebrew that he has picked up at work, will he be able to fool the ICE examiner?
Claire, an aspiring actress from Australia, takes a more drastic step when she drives her car away from the curb, and is hit by one driven by Cole Frankel (Ray Liotta). Discovering her predicament, Cole suggests lunch together. It so happens that he works the other side of immigration law from his attorney wife Denise. He is a green-card application adjudicator, so he proposes that Clair become his mistress for two months, and he will see that she goes to the head of the line for her Green Card. Being the ambitious gal that she is, Clair agrees to the degrading arrangement.
Thus we have quite an ensemble of people on each side of the law—oh yes, there is also a little Nigerian boy that Denise visits regularly, and about whom she talks with her unfaithful husband—she would like to save the boy from deportation by adopting him. Talk about taking your work home! (Well, Cole doesn’t exactly take “his” home with him, but he does spend lots of hours outside the office with Clair!)
It is unfortunate that the filmmakers inject so much unnecessary nudity and sex into the vignette involving Clair and Cole, making this for Christians an unlikely one to use in church. This really is too bad, in that there are a number of wonderful moments of grace spread throughout the film. Were it not too obvious, writer Wayne Kramer could have chosen “Christopher,” rather than Max, as the name of the compassionate Immigration agent. Harrison’s face almost constantly registers regret and sorrow as he goes about his sad but necessary job of enforcing the law, a job that means ending the hope of the American Dream for the busted illegal immigrants. One of the last scenes (if not the last) is his traveling back to the Mexican border town to bring news of Mireya. His partner Hamid also does something that is both highly questionable in its illegality and yet life enhancing. There is a lot to preach and teach in this film, despite ifs flaws.
1. As a review, from what nations are the immigrants from? (In case you can’t remember them all—Mexico, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Iran, England, Korea and Australia.)
2. About which ones would you like more information? A fun project for a group: divide into pairs or triads around one of the characters and create a “back story.” Note that I have grouped the ones interacting with each other: Max Brogan // Mireya Sanchez Cole Frankel // Denise Frankel // Gavin Kossef Claire Shepard // Taslima Jahangir Hamid Baraheri // Zahra Baraheri // Yong Kim 3. Where do we see what might be called “radical grace” in the film? How do Max and Hamid carry out the strictures of Torah and of Christ? Which of them could be in serious trouble with the law if their act of grace had been revealed publicly? How has obedience to faith gotten people in trouble in the past? Some examples: Dietrich Bonheoffer; Martin Luther King, Jr.; members of the Sanctuary Movement.
4. What do you think of teenaged Taslima Jahangir’s argument in her classroom essay? I was very interested in this because a few weeks after 9-11 I lost a friend when I also argued that we must try to understand why the terrorists feel they have to resort to violence, that it is not just because “they hate our freedom.” What of our one-sided support of Israel and our other acts of intervening in countries whose governments we did not like, plus certain aspects of our cultural values unacceptable to Muslims? Will we really be able to “defeat terrorism” by thinking that all blame is on one side so that we do not have to examine or change anything in ourselves?
5. How are the various strands of the film woven together at the end by the Naturalization Ceremony and a deportation?
6. What do you think of the various “answers’ to our “illegal immigration problem?
Keep on building the fence along our southern border.
Tighter crackdown, especially upon employers of illegal immigrants.
Grant not rights to their children.
Amnesty to those already here, or have been here a certain number of years.
7. What in the film uphold the famous Emma Lazarus poem on the Stature of Liberty? Which seems to negate it?
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 8. The movie’s poster shows various stars at top and at bottom an aerial shot of complex LA freeways crossing over each other: what does this add to the meaning of the title? How might Christians interpret the title? That is, what could “crossing over” mean for a disciple of Christ? Has anyone in the film chosen the “way of the cross” ?