'Touching and Triggering': 'Knives Out' sparks question of how to tell immigration stories

The depiction of undocumented life in "Knives Out" has proved polarizing, inspiring discussion about how to tell immigration narratives.
Image: Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig in "Knives Out."
Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig in "Knives Out."Claire Folger / Lionsgate

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By Gwen Aviles

This story contains spoilers for "Knives Out."

One of the season's hit movies has racked up a ton of praise — and it's also spurred some vigorous debate.

"Knives Out,” a murder mystery with an all-star cast, shows the tensions around Americans’ views of immigrants and the immigration process.

The movie, which has spurred Oscar buzz and recently nabbed three leading Golden Globe nominations, is on Top 10 film lists and has inspired heated questions about how to tell immigration narratives ethically and effectively.

Following the movie's release, many praised its depiction of undocumented immigrants in the United States, as told through Golden Globe-nominated Ana de Armas' character, Marta, the nurse and caregiver of family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).

As the murder investigation of Harlan’s death unfolds, so does some of Marta’s backstory. Her mother is undocumented, having come to the U.S. from an unspecified Latin American country, and this fact consumes Marta daily. Worried about her family’s precarious legal situation, she tries to melt into the background, but the murder investigation — led by the whimsical Benoit Blanc (Craig) — launches her into a glaring spotlight.

Marta's employers are a family that includes both progressive, "New Yorker"-reading types, as well as alt-right conservatives who call Marta the pejorative term, “anchor baby." They've tolerated Marta for coming to the U.S. “the right way.” But when they discover their inheritances from Harlan’s will are threatened and that Marta has undocumented family members, they direct their animosity toward her — going so far as to frame her for Harlan’s murder and lord her mother’s status over her head.

Marta may well have the last laugh in what many call a “triumphant” final scene.

On Twitter, author Daniel José Older posted, “‘Knives Out’ didn't just open a wound for kicks and leave it open. It didn't make it melodramatic or shove in our faces the horror of deportation, and it didn't ignore it altogether, which most movies do.”

"It acknowledged it as a reality and vulnerability of one of its characters, and an unfair advantage of others, and dealt with that, and kept it moving. That's what I want from art: honesty without berating, preaching, or manipulating. And a good time, which this was too of course,” he wrote.

Not everyone thought the social commentary in the film was effective, however. Some Latino viewers criticized the film's handling of an issue that was perhaps a bit too close to home.

“Unfortunately Mr. Johnson’s ambitions on this front reminded me that sometimes, well-intentioned art can backfire and offend (and even hurt) those it’s intended to champion,” film critic (and NBC Latino contributor) Monica Castillo wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “Through the character of Marta, ‘Knives Out’ has a tendency to exploit its story’s immigration angle, which left me feeling uneasy as strangers at the screening I attended laughed at real-life issues I’m genuinely frightened of.”

Luis Paez-Pumar, a freelance culture writer, echoed Castillo’s analysis.

“‘Knives Out’ was a really fun movie that I almost entirely enjoyed, and yet I can’t help but feel like the whole immigration stuff was a well-intentioned mistake of whiteness. Oh, well,” Paez-Pumar tweeted.

“Knives Out” wasn’t marketed as a movie dripping with social commentary; the trailer leads viewers to believe that the film is simply a comedic whodunit murder mystery drawing on “Clue” and Agatha Christie’s detective novels — with an ensemble powerhouse cast.

But the differing perspectives are part of a larger debate on the ethical and effective ways to tell immigration narratives, experts say.

“Media narratives about immigration must center around the people directly affected and they must show people are fully dimensional human beings,” Ryan Eller, executive director of Define American, a nonprofit media organization whose mission is to shift the conversation about immigrants, told NBC News. “I’d love to see more filmmakers collaborate with people who have lived experience when taking on stories about immigration. It’s so important for immigrants and people who come from mixed status families to not only be consultants on these projects, but creators of them.”

Though “Knives Out” was directed, produced and written by Rian Johnson and does not appear to have much Latino representation in its crew, other experts thought that the film met the criteria of examining Marta’s immigration story with nuance.

“Rian Johnson takes a familiar formula and revises it in a really progressive way,” Charles Ramírez Berg, a professor in media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, told NBC News. “He took an established genre, the whodunit form, and put a twist in it, by casting a Latina who’s a professional, intelligent and not the murderer.”

“Anglos are people in movies and they can run the range of the complete spectrum of humanity. They can be good, they can be bad, they can be smart, they can be not so smart,” Berg added. “They can be everything. But when it comes to Latinos they’re not presented as people; they’re ignorant or illegal or immoral ... They’re stereotypes.”

Kristian Ramos, communications director of Define American, similarly praised the nuance of Marta’s character.

“You have this Latina nurse who inherits all the money because of her hard work and her genuine relationship with her patient,” Ramos said. “She wasn’t a caricature; she showed the difficulty of being undocumented. Her being there and being intelligent and kind, but also having a backbone and learning how to stand up for herself was subversive.”

According to a study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center and Define American, immigrant characters on television remain underrepresented and stereotypical. Of the more than 140 episodes of television the groups analyzed from 2017 and 2018, 11 percent of characters were immigrants and almost half of these characters had fewer than 10 speaking lines. While numerous studies have shown that immigrants don’t commit any more crime than U.S.-born citizens, 34 percent of these television characters were connected to a past or current crime.

“Once someone sees a stereotypical immigration storyline, it enables them to see them as second class citizens,” Eller said. “It impacts their abilities to see immigrants with dignity and respect and has real consequences, like the children kept in cages and the El Paso and Gilroy shooters who embraced a false narrative of invasion.”

More real video — is that good?

There’s been a long tradition of using documentary as a form to tell immigrant stories, according to Mauricio Espinoza, assistant of Spanish and Latin American Literature at the University of Cincinnati. The form, he says, takes “advantage of emotional connections” to present a story of a real person affected by a real issue. But while documentaries have long been an effective method of storytelling, fictionalized immigrant stories like “Knives Out” may be able to reach new demographics, he said.

Whether an immigrant narrative is told through a fictionalized or documentary form, however, Espinoza said it’s important to probe the motivations behind telling a certain story.

“One of the dangers of having so much access to video technology everywhere it that it doesn’t take long for stories with unfiltered, disturbing images to go viral,” Espinoza said. “We need to address these difficult situations, but we also can’t dehumanize them. We need to question if sharing the gory details will help pave the way for change in policies or if they’re just sensationalism that will perpetuate the trauma immigrants have gone through.”

The conversation about the “Knives Out” immigration plotline has been occurring as a video of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a Guatemalan teenager who died in Customs and Border Protection custody has circulated online. The video, which was published by ProPublica earlier this month, shows Hernandez collapsing to the floor and has also stirred controversy about when to use graphic imagery in immigration narratives. After ProPublica posted the video, the late teenager’s family released a statement to the Texas Civil Rights Project saying it was “painful” to have people “watching him die on the Internet.”

Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief, told NBC News that the publication believed “the American people need to see this video in order to understand the actions of their government and what really happened to Carlos.”

Espinoza suggested adding content warnings or additional steps before accessing violent or potentially disturbing imagery could help ensure immigrant narratives are shown “in a respective and human way.”

Berg added that “we’re on the verge of breaking through to a new kind of narrative. The problem is it’s very hard to get anybody to watch. It’s easier to dismiss it or look the other way, but we need to find a way to look at those hard and harsh realities.”

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