"Then the bedlam of Ellis Island—a maelstrom of people and bundles and a babel of tongues."—Max Glass
It is said that 40% of Americans can trace their heritage through the gates of Ellis Island. I can trace 100% of mine, although the only account of the transition comes from a 19-page autobiography by my uncle Max Glass, my maternal grandmother's brother, who arrived in this country in 1906. There, he was detained for three days, while his mother was inspected for possible trachoma, a common illness among immigrants. When he first set foot on the mainland, he was offered a banana, which he tried to eat with the skin on.
From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island was the first port for 13 million immigrants. The History Channel documents the experiences of these new Americans in a three part documentary from 1997, appropriately entitled Ellis Island. Mandy Patinkin narrates, with archival footage and interviews with both historians and actual immigrants to tell the story. Beginning as far back as the days of indentured servitude in the 18th century, America was a prized destination for many people. Of course, there were plenty who did not choose willingly to come here (namely slaves), but immigration by the 1850s (mostly Irish and Germans) had grown to the point where New York, the preferred landing spot for most travelers, felt the need to set up the Castle Garden facility to process the flood.
By 1890, the federal government had taken over the operation, and Ellis Island became the central clearinghouse. Xenophobia and political backlash (especially paranoia about communism) made Ellis the "isle of tears" after World War I, and the island fell into disrepute until its final closure in 1954. Even during its heyday, some immigrants (especially first and second class passengers aboard the arriving ships) were treated with open arms, while others (those in steerage) were run through a gauntlet of medical, psychological, and later even literacy tests to prove their worthiness.
You will not hear much of this story in Part I of Ellis Island, a shapeless mess that jumps around the story in fairly arbitrary fashion. The story here feels generic; no names or personalities stand out. If the Ellis Island story is about how immigrants formed their identities as Americans through the gateway experience, Part I seems surprisingly free of personality, other than a healthy dose of sentimentality.
Part II shapes up considerably, finally getting to the actual experiences of immigrants on the island, and the interviews feel more specific, capturing the voices of the people involved. One woman recalls (accompanied by an archival photograph) being handed a glass of milk and a doughnut on her first day, and we finally feel that we have arrived. Part III maintains the momentum of the story, chronicling the descent of Ellis Island after anti-immigration laws became the fashion in 1924. Ass the processing facility became more of a dormitory for potential undesirables awaiting judgment, the Statue of Liberty ironically only showed her back to those staring out the windows of the dilapidated buildings on the island.
A fairly bare bones approach (no subtitles and only a timeline as an extra) suggests that the History Channel does not consider this program, originally shot on videotape (which makes for a predictably low-budget feel), a prestige package. In spite of this, Ellis Island is at least worth a rental, if you cannot actually catch it for free on cable. Given America's current ambivalence toward its immigrant roots, most of us would do well to remember where we came from and what it took to get here. When I entered my Uncle Max's name into the Ellis Island genealogical database (check it out for yourself) while writing this review, he came up as the earliest listing. This makes me feel somehow, oddly, anchored.
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