Fresh on the Screen: Immigrants take the prime time

ABC's Fresh Off the Boat was inspired by the childhood memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang. Photo courtesy of ABC.

Immigrants have always been an integral part of the American film and television industry.  “Those who founded Hollywood and built it to glory were almost all themselves newcomers,” writes journalist Jeff Yang.  “Jewish immigrants from middle and Eastern Europe, like Universal's Carl Laemmle, Paramount's Adolph Zukor and William Fox's Fox Film Corporation, MGM's Louis B. Mayer and the four siblings who founded Warner Brothers. Aware that the scent of foreignness might put off audiences, they stayed behind the scenes and, as much as possible, hid their overseas origins; fear of xenophobic reaction is why we don't have ‘20th Century Fuchs’ and ‘Wonskolaser Brothers Pictures’ today.”

Foreign-born characters, however, were rarely seen on screen, and when they were, they were often the butt of the joke. With the recent success of television shows such as Fresh Off the Boat, Modern Family, and Jane the Virgin, the tide seems to be turning. We partnered with Jeff and NPR’s Code Switch to present interviews with four immigrant actors, writers, and producers on the importance of telling diverse stories, how specificity creates universality, and how comedy can combat bigotry.

Sara Ramirez, an immigrant from Mexico, plays the role of Dr. Callie Torres on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. She talks about her struggle to land roles as a Latina actress and becoming an immigration and LGBT activist.

Aasif Mandvi, British-born to parents of Indian descent, is a former correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Recognizing the power of comedy, he created Halal in the Family to address Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.

Nahnatchka Khan is the executive producer and showrunner for Fresh Off the Boat. Raised in an Iranian immigrant family, she values the importance of being able to tell the immigrant story from an inside perspective.

Yvonne Orji is a Nigerian-born actress, writer, and comedian, who will be featured in the upcoming HBO series Insecure. Like many comics, she finds humor in both the immigrant and American aspects of her upbringing.

Check out NPR’s Code Switch for Jeff's full essay on the history of immigrants in Hollywood, both behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera. The videos will be released over the course of this week—check in daily for more!

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  • A Message from Jan and Marica Vilcek

    Our founders arrived as penniless refugees over fifty years ago, but with the kindness and opportunity they received in the United States, they went on to accomplish great things in biomedical science and art history. Read their statement on the recent executive order imposing a travel ban.