Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino-American journalist who revealed he was undocumented in a NY Times Op-Ed last year, says best actor Oscar nominee Demian Bichir’s character in the film “A Better Life,” represents the help of today and “speaks for millions of undocumented immigrants” living in the U.S.
“Playing a Mexican gardener caring for his American-born teenage son, Bichir illuminates a largely invisible, if not downright untouchable, character in contemporary American life: an undocumented immigrant,” Vargas wrote in an essay for Entertainment Weekly.
There are moments in A Better Life of such heartbreaking truth – the conversations between father and son, the fear, anguish, and shame on Bichir’s face as he encounters a cop on the street – that the film transcends language and race. Here’s a film from a mainstream Hollywood director (Chris Weitz) tackling a controversial issue our officials in Washington don’t know quite how to address. In its quietly affecting way, it’s a groundbreaking piece of cinema.
Indeed, it’s rare to watch an undocumented immigrant portrayed with such complexity. It’s rarer still to experience a film about an undocumented immigrant told from the immigrant’s perspective. In an awards season that has lauded The Help, about black maids and the white families they serve in 1960s Mississippi, Bichir represents the help – gardeners, farmhands, and other undocumented workers – at the mercy of present-day laws in Georgia and Alabama. But A Better Life is not a political movie in the same way that illegal immigration is not a political issue. It’s a nuanced human story.
I’ve seen Bichir before, as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che and as a drug-running mayor in Showtime’s Weeds. To call his performance in A Better Life a “transformation,” as critics have done, does not do him justice. His performance gives dignity and voice to the 11 million undocumented human beings–gardeners and babysitters, would-be engineers, doctors, and writers – whom he inevitably represents. He is doing something more than acting. At a time when undocumented people are referred to as “illegals” – when common sense and empathy escape many of our politicians – his performance is an act of salvation
Hours after the Academy announced Bichir’s best actor nomination he released a statement dedicating his nomination to the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
In the best actor category, Bichir is up against George Clooney in “The Descendants”, Jean Dujardin in “The Artist”, Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and Brad Pitt in “Moneyball”.