2007. Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira. Directed by Thomas McCarthy.
It’s valuable for Americans to be reminded of how lucky it is to be free.
Richard Jenkins, previously a well-traveled character actor, takes the lead as Walter Vale, a Connecticut professor who admits that he hasn’t worked in years, despite “co-authoring” a paper on international economic development and having to present the paper’s findings at a New York conference. Dropping into his NYC apartment for the first time in months, he finds a couple staying there, having been misled into renting the apartment from a mysterious “Ivan.” He quickly and graciously offers to let the couple (Haaz Sleiman as Syrian-born Tarek and Danai Jekesai Gurira as Senegal-born Zainab) stay at the apartment until they are settled elsewhere.
Instead, Walter and Tarek bond over their love of music, with Tarek teaching Walter to play the drum. He also awakens the professor, who has drifted since the death of his wife, and provides him a cause when Tarek is arrested while passing through the subway. Walter visits Tarek in a sinister corporate-run detention center, comforts the vulnerable Zainab and Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass), and runs into the sterile, unsympathetic apparatus of Homeland Security.
Walter tries to comfort his newly confined friend, while finding himself attracted to his new friend’s mother, and abandons his professorial responsibilities to free Tarek and, taking the responsibility to his country and its pledges of freedom and fairness, to make everything right.
What makes The Visitor resonate with me is the acknowledgment that the music-loving Tarek has more to do with me than the heartless, faceless authorities that engineer his deportation. The scene where Tarek invites Walter into the drum circle is a clear metaphor in these terrorism-fearing days. The U.S. has little to fear from people like Tarek and Zainab, who are musicians and peace-loving people. Instead, they are identified on a racial and national basis, throwing out the good with the bad, and dashing any goodwill promised by the Statue of Liberty standing watch in the New York harbor.
I’m the grandson of an immigrant, and just like the contemporary immigrants, my grandfather came here to make a better life. Not to take advantage of the country, but to contribute to it, to become an American and cast his fate to the destiny of his new home. It’s why, after less than two decades of living here, he volunteered his life in the first world war, and lived a shortened life as a result. I’m sure that, during his first years here, trying to scratch out a living and establish himself, he was considered an opportunist among those who only arrived a short time earlier.
I hope it’s time that America embraces the fact that it has many ancestors, and that its beauty and its appeal and its importance is that it is a mixture of cultures, and always has been. The Visitor is a compelling film, and Richard Jenkins’ quietly moving performance is an inspiration.