The Golden Door to the American Dream

Professor Marie Orton describes the difficulties of international migration as a preview of International Cinema’s screening of The Golden Door.

As the United States continues to debate immigration and the prospects of everything from border walls to merit-based point systems, the country runs the risk of over-politicizing an issue that has always had the marginalized at its core. For many, the United States represents the chance at a new life and an escape from the struggles and turmoil of conflict and poverty. The individual stories of migrants making the journey to the United States are ones of courage, and it has been the goal of BYU’s International Cinema this semester to showcase these efforts. The latest addition to IC’s Migration Film Series was The Golden Door (2006) which was introduced by Italian professor Marie Orton as a “beautiful film about painful issues.”

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Orton contextualized the film by outlining the United States’ complex history of immigration law. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, any individual who was able to travel to America was essentially given the opportunity to pursue a new life. However, over time, the United States shifted its stance.  Legislation such as the 1924 Immigration Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act curtailed or limited immigration from certain countries whose citizens were considered undesirable, while cultural shifts (like the persecution of minorities and migrants at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan) further intensified the idea that immigrants were unwelcome in the United States.  Italy was one of these countries whose citizens were considered unwelcome.  However, as demonstrated in The Golden Door, for millions of Italian immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, men and women were left with the choice of living with nothing in the Old World or pursuing the possibility of something more in the New World.

Still, taking a chance on the New World came with significant costs. Orton explained that “if you [wanted] to come to the United States, you [needed] to get Americanized.” Since the early twentieth century, the United States has been heralded as a “melting pot” of cultures and people, but this notion of supposedly mingling all cultures equally generally translated into immigrants being expected to erase the differences from their heritage as the cost of admission. Orton acknowledged that nineteenth-century American culture required this assimilation and transmitted the idea that “you can come if you are not too different.” Attitudes concerning immigration have evolved somewhat as exemplified by the “mosaic” ideal:  instead of a melting pot, we now claim to embrace all cultures equally and promote harmony between different cultures and peoples, at least ostensibly.  Nevertheless, the prevailing assimilationist attitudes in the early twentieth century, when The Golden Door is set, created yet another barrier for migrants searching for a better life.

In order to showcase the difficulties of migration, Orton detailed how The Golden Door is split into three parts that embody the full immigrant journey. The film’s first portion showcases life in rural Italy and the beliefs and mysticism that dominated much of the Old World, while the second section details the voyage from Italy to the United States. Orton described the hardships of crossing and noted how vessels often contained entire worlds comprising life, death, love, and loss as migrants transitioned to their new lives.  The conclusion of the film sees the arrival of the ship at the titular golden door of Ellis Island. Even with the arduous journey complete, Ellis Island represents the last barrier before the start of a new life, and this final hurdle requires sacrifice so great that the film’s characters are left wondering if their sacrifices will bring the hoped-for prosperity.


Eric Baker (News Media, ’18)

Eric Baker covers events for BYU’s International Cinema. He is a senior pursuing a degree in news media with a minor in political science.