Chris Weitz, the director of the indie drama A Better Life, whose lead actor, Demián Bichir, is up for on Oscar on Sunday night, didn't really plan on making a "political" movie. He was drawn to the modest, affecting human story of Carlos Galindo, an undocumented Mexican day laborer in East LA struggling to eke out a living, keep his head down, and make "a better life" for his teenage son. And that he did, very successfully; although the film didn't do much at the box office, the critics loved it. “A haunting movie that gets under your skin," wrote Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, who praised its "raw emotional power" and Bichir's "monumental" performance.
But A Better Life is a political movie -- although not of the earnest, tub-thumping kind. It’s unavoidably political, because in cracking open the precarious, paradoxical world of an "illegal" immigrant in America today -- and, by extension, the world of the millions of souls who among many other things pick our food, look after our kids, tend our gardens, and build our homes; people who are everywhere but invisible, indispensable but exploited, fearful but demonized, deeply rooted in the United States yet at risk at any moment of being ripped from their families and tossed out -- the film can’t help but show the life-shattering inhumanity and all-around bustedness of our immigration system, which was built by politics and which will, eventually, have to be unbuilt and rebuilt by politics.
While making A Better Life, Weitz and Bichir got deep into the culture of illegal immigration in Los Angeles, hanging out with undocumented immigrants and interviewing their lawyers, and, in Weitz’s case, visiting a immigration detention center. Like most people who look at the issue who are not right-wing conservatives, they came away persuaded that the vast majority of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants aren’t going anyplace anytime soon – they have jobs, kids, friends, communities here; plus, booting them out would be nuttily impractical and morally wrong – and that “fixing” the system will mean, among other things, giving them some kind of a path to eventual legal status. Still, when the film hit theaters last summer, Weitz, whose credits include such mainstream Hollywood fare as About a Boy, American Pie, and the second Twilight movie, was still reluctant to wade into the politics of the issue. "We don't really have a political agenda,” he said in an interview with NPR. "It's simply that when you turn a camera on somebody, it's hard not to sympathize with them."
But around this time the debate-driven GOP presidential nomination battle was heating up, and Weitz was disgusted, he says, to see the candidates fall over each other to be the most immigrant-bashing guy in the race. He found a channel for his indignation in the lobbying effort to get Bichir's award-worthy performance recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "The Oscar campaign for me has been [about] converting Demián's performance into stardom via the nomination,” he recently told Rolling Stone, ”for the purpose of combating the slanders of the Republican primary race.”
Weitz began to step into a more activist role. He linked up with immigrant advocates and policy professionals, people like Angela Maria Kelley of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, who reached out to Weitz after hearing his NPR interview ("I heard him say the film wasn't about politics and policy,” she says. “I thought: It's totally about politics and policy”). She loved the movie. “It’s the most respectful and honest portrayal I’ve seen of the lives of millions of people who by definition have to be invisible,” she says. And she quickly saw its potential as a vehicle for taking the message of humane, comprehensive immigration reform beyond the Beltway. "We have terrific people who can do smart policy thinking and lobbying,” she says. “But it's all about a Washington debate that is, frankly, constipated. We're not speaking to the middle part of the country that's turned off by Washington's paralysis and the shouting match on Capitol Hill. If we can find a way to do that -- and I think A Better Life begins to -- we'll have success, eventually, in unsticking the policy debate."
She helped put Weitz and Bichir in touch with high-level players in D.C. They met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and with President Obama's top immigration aide, Cecilia Munoz, at the White House. (Obama, despite having pledged to push comprehensive immigration reform, hasn't made it a priority; in fact, his administration has prosecuted a major crackdown on illegal immigration, and on his watch deportations have surged to record levels, though there's been some easing up of late. "We we need Obama and his wife to see the film, not only the blockbusters they watch,” says Bichir.) Kelley also introduced Weitz to Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who in 2011 "came out" as an undocumented immigrant in the pages of the New York Times Magazine, and whose latest project, Define American, invites undocumented immigrants to tell and share their stories via video as a kind of education for the rest of us that such people are, first, human beings and not abstractions or political caricatures, and second, deeply embedded in our schools, our communities, even our families. (Nearly half of all “illegal” immigrants in this country have “legal” family members.)
Weitz and Vargas recently teamed up on a project called ‘Is this Alabama?’ four Weitz-directed nonfiction shorts documenting the human toll of that state’s draconian immigration law, H.B. 56. In effect since last summer, the law, like similarly severe legislation passed in recent years in Arizona, North Carolina, and other states and designed to make life unbearable for undocumented immigrants, allows police to demand papers from those they think might be undocumented (otherwise known as “racial profiling”) and criminalizes a range of interactions with the undocumented. "The entire problem is the fact that we have not sat down at each others' table," a white farmer tells Vargas in one of the films, "Not the Kind of Alabama I Want." He talks about “Paco,” an undocumented worker on his farm, and a close friend. "I tell his grandkids that they're mi nietos, they're like my grandchildren," he says. (The Supreme Court will soon take up the question of whether states are entitled to impose tough anti-immigration measures over the Obama administration’s objections.)
Weitz says he'll keep on devoting time and energy to the cause of immmigration reform. This weekend, though, he has the Oscars to focus on. Bichir, to be honest, is a long shot to win (he’s up against Brad Pitt and George Clooney). But it’s a big enough deal already, you might think, for an actor virtually unknown outside his native Mexico (where he’s a household name) to have beaten out big stars like Ryan Gosling and Leonard di Caprio for the nod. And thanks to the nomination, which Bichir dedicated to America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, lots of moviegoers who missed A Better Life in the theaters will no doubt seek it out on Netflix or iTunes. Bichir hopes they’ll come away changed. “I believe in the power of cinema to teach us about who we are,” he says. “This film is touching; it moves people to tears -- but it's also opening minds.”