TV Eye

Coming to America

<i>The New Americans</i>
The New Americans

When Nigerian refugee Israel Nwidor takes his first bite of a McDonald's hamburger, his reaction is as varied as his new U.S. immigrant status. Surprising, strange, tasty, but perhaps not as substantial as he imagined. That quintessentially American experience is one of several small but keenly telling details in The New Americans. The film had its regional premiere at SXSW.

"This is one of those rare cases where the initial conception was ambitious to begin with," said Executive Producer Steve James from the Kartemquin Film offices in Chicago before attending the festival. "Ambitious" is an understatement. The New Americans used seven directors spread over three continents, collecting 1,100 hours of footage that took four years to edit. The result is a seven-hour, three-part documentary featuring intertwined stories of eight immigrants new to the U.S. Some are political refugees, some are fleeing economic hardship, and others are leaving comfortable lives to see if they can succeed in America's go-go culture.

Like other critically acclaimed Kartemquin films (Hoop Dreams, Stevie), The New Americans brings audiences nose to nose with each immigrant to experience the personal dramas that drive their lives, and, more importantly, to shorten the distance between audiences snug in their cushy seats to those whose last bed might have been a flap of cardboard.

The idea for the film came 10 years ago, inspired by then heated calls to clamp shut U.S. borders and by James' personal quandary.

"In my daily encounters with immigrants, usually cabbies, I didn't find [one] whose story wasn't compelling. At the same time, I wasn't really sure how I felt about it. I wasn't a Pat Buchanan, but I found myself wanting to explore the issue."

Three key events profoundly mark The New Americans. The second Intifada, the dot-com bust, and 9/11, which in turn reignited the immigrant question. The New Americans examines the issue, not in pie charts, nativist rhetoric, or election-year sound bites, but in the hearts of those who search for what all people search for. Prosperity, better lives for their children, and a safe place to call home.

The New Americans airs as an Independent Lens special beginning on March 29-31 at 8pm on PBS.

Gearing Up

I no longer own a car. When I discovered I could get around just fine on foot, bus, cab, or the charity of friends, I didn't see the need. Given the means, I would own an environmentally conscious vehicle. Or so I thought until I watched Pimp My Ride on MTV.

The charismatic rapper Xzibit hosts the show, smoothly moving from introductions with the ride and its owner to its delivery to West Coast Customs (in California) for the overhaul, to the big reveal where car owners are reunited with their cars and are thrilled at the results. They should be thrilled. Some of the clunkers submitted for work are insults to man and nature. Before Nile gets her '78 Caddy tricked out, her father is embarrassed to have her car parked in front of the house.

Duct-taped headlights, dents, tangles of wires where radios used to be, trunks serving as suitcases, back seats as garbage dumps, and my favorite feature, a broken off ignition key – meaning you just turn and go – are some of the sorry blemishes that keep junkers from being the elegant rides they were back in the day.

I'm so conflicted. When I saw that '78 Caddy tricked out, complete with an electronic shoe rack in the trunk, I about fell over. The same was true of the Eighties-era Cutlass Supreme, decked out with a sound system and two screens in the back to watch DVDs or play video games. Twenty thousand dollars spent on a vehicle worth $500 tops? Crazy, right? And yet, there I was, drooling like those suburbanites I make fun of on Oprah during those "My Favorite Things" episodes.

I think the thing that hooks me into Pimp My Ride is that the vehicle is not only returned to its former glory, but also customized to the owner's personal style with a capital S. Besides the shoe rack, the WCC guys truly customized Nile's ride by inserting a small Plexiglas covered river of water in the back seat (Nile River, get it?). The soon-to-be business-school graduate who owned the Cutlass wanted to be able to drive up to a meeting without attracting arched eyes. They gave him a mullet – all business in front, all play in back. Painted a respectable, take-your-momma-to-church green in the front, the Cutlass faded into a midnight black in the rear. Popping the trunk revealed a karaoke machine with screen, and when that was out of sight, a parquet interior with slots kept athletic gear in order. Sweet.

I'm unlikely to trade my bus pass for a new car any time soon, but Pimp My Ride is a swell ride.

New episodes of Pimp My Ride air Thursdays at 9:30pm on MTV.

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Steve James, The New Americans, Independent Lens, Xzibit, Pimp My Ride, MTV

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