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With ICE chase and laughs, filmmaker Nelson A. Denis puts human face on immigration

Latino Director Nelson A. Denis hopes that his new film, Make America Great Again, puts a human face on immigration under Trumps America
Nelson Denis hopes that "Make America Great Again" will put a human face on immigration issues.
Nelson Denis hopes that "Make America Great Again" will put a human face on immigration issues.Raul A. Reyes

He has been an attorney, a politician, a journalist and an author. His first film had the honor of premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. Now Nelson A. Denis, 62, is back with a new movie, Make America Great Again, that he hopes will help audiences understand the human cost of our immigration policies.

As Denis describes it, his latest film is “the story of a Dominican dreamer who comes to the U.S. in search of the American dream and finds a nightmare. Instead of a job he is given the title of ‘Public Enemy Number 1’ and is chased by ICE agents for nearly half of the movie.”

This movie has personal resonance for Denis. When he was 8 years old, the FBI knocked on the door of his family’s apartment in Washington Heights at 3 AM. His father, accused of being a spy, was arrested and immediately deported to Cuba. This was in November 1962, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Denis never saw his father again.

In "Make America Great Again," Angel Salazar plays Rogelio Yola.
In "Make America Great Again," Angel Salazar plays Rogelio Yola.Nelson Denis

Denis sees Make America Great Again as “a distress signal, an S.O.S., a call to recover our national spirit” and hopes to have his film on the festival circuit shortly as a prelude to a wider release (though the fact that Trump has trademarked the slogan “Make America Great Again” could present licensing complications).

Asked whether audiences are ready for a story about immigration enforcement that contains comedic elements, Denis said, “Yes. The Italian neo-realists used humor to enrich their stories, as did Truffaut in The 400 Blows, Robert Altman and (Indian filmmaker) Satyajit Ray. Some of the world’s greatest films have used humor to convey a serious subject matter, in a way audiences can understand and appreciate.”

Make America Great Again is part of a larger trend of incorporating immigration stories into TV and film productions. Shows like Jane The Virgin, Superstore, and the Netflix reboot of One Day At A Time have all had story lines involving undocumented immigrants.

Denis is aware that the title of his film may carry negative connotations for Latinos. To him, such racially-coded language is evidence of a divided and schizophrenic society, a situation he hopes to alter.

“These days, there is a lack of humanity when we talk about DACA and building a wall,” Denis told NBC Latino. “Trump dehumanizes people, which makes it easier to attack them. I hope to put a human face on this issue, and show that the physical and emotional violence that people suffer is not an abstraction.”

Filmed last summer, Make America Great Again was shot in the diverse neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. Denis intentionally incorporated local landmarks like the United Palace Theater, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the Audobon Ballroom (where Malcolm X was shot), and the George Washington Bridge into the film, to make his characters’ surroundings part of their story.

“It is striking to me, that in this very historic neighborhood, where George Washington once lived,” Denis said, “we have over 100,000 undocumented people living in the shadows because of the current immigration climate. There is real dramatic, symbolic tension in that, this inner turmoil of people who are like shadows on the sidewalk.”

Shooting the film in Washington Heights posed its own challenges. During one scene, a carload of real ICE agents pulled up and offered to assist in a (fictional) arrest taking place. Many local residents, Denis recounted, shared their own personal stories about encounters with immigration agents. The film includes everything from a subplot involving an EB5 visa scam, to sly digs at New York City real-life politicians.

The final credits note that “No animals or Republicans were harmed during the making of this motion picture.”

In the film "Make America Great Again," Tati (Gloria Zelaya) leads her brother Rogelio (Angel "Chi Chi" Salazar) on a guided tour of Washington Heights.
In the film "Make America Great Again," Tati (Gloria Zelaya) leads her brother Rogelio (Angel "Chi Chi" Salazar) on a guided tour of Washington Heights.Nelson Denis

Denis is the film's writer, producer and director, which features comedian Angel Salazar (best known from Scarface), Gloria Zelaya, Gissel Romero, and Mayada Moussad. Denis himself plays multiple supporting roles.

With his largely Latino cast, Denis is bucking another trend in film. According to a 2017 University of Southern California study, while Latinos make up 23 percent of frequent movie-goers, only about 3 percent of speaking roles in films over the last decade went to Hispanics. In the last 20 years, only three Hispanic actors have won an Academy Award. This lack of representation and recognition led the National Hispanic Media Coalition to protest at the Oscars luncheon in February.

This film marks the latest chapter in Denis’ atypical, accomplished career path. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School. He has served as the editorial director of El Diario/La Prensa, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in New York, and represented El Barrio/East Harlem as a New York State Assemblyman from 1996 to 2000. His 2003 film, Vote For Me!, about a 70-year-old Puerto Rican building superintendent who runs for Congress, was hailed by the New York Times as “reminiscent of Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee, but with a lighter touch.”

In 2015, Denis authored “War Against All Puerto Ricans,” which was the top-selling book on the island for 2015-2016. His op-ed for Publishers Weekly, entitled, “Dear Publishers, Latinos read books, too” was the magazine’s second-most read editorial of 2017. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, he has also written about Puerto Rico for national publications

Rogelio (Angel Salazar) chased by ICE agents all over Washington Heights, NYC in "Make America Great Again."
Rogelio (Angel Salazar) chased by ICE agents all over Washington Heights, NYC in "Make America Great Again."Nelson Denis

Denis believes that the throughline in his career is humanism. “When I was in politics, there were very serious and profound needs in my community, in East Harlem. With my book, I wanted to raise awareness of what it means to be Puerto Rican, and what the island’s relation is to the U.S.”

“Now, with Make America Great Again, I hope I can contribute to the evolving dialogue in this country,” he added. “I think (the movie) will have a healthy life because it will promote and be part of the conversation about immigration. It is a small movie, yet sometimes very small things can start a series of consequences.”