Sneak Peek: Latest Define American Immigrant Portrayals Research on Stage at Sundance - Define American

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Sneak Peek: Latest Define American Immigrant Portrayals Research on Stage at Sundance

Full television study to be released September

PARK CITYErick Castrillon, co-writer and producer of the film Blast Beat, and Ekwa Msangi, who wrote and directed Farewell Amor, told a packed room at the Define American panel at the Sundance Film Festival how hyper-specific and deeply culturally-informed stories are also universal stories.

“When we set out to make Blast Beat, we just wanted to steer away from all that misery porn that you talk about, no dusty border crossings, no gangs, no kingpins, or any of that. Just focus it on the people we know, which is our family and friends,” said Castrillon, who came to the U.S. from Colombia. His Sundance debut follows Colombian metalhead skate punks coming of age in Atlanta.

Castrillon and Msangi appeared with Define American founder Jose Antonio Vargas and head of research and impact Sarah Lowe at the MACRO Lodge to preview groundbreaking research showing that immigration stories on television — which the panel agreed are hot right now — are moving audiences to action.

“When we give people hope in this very dark time, that’s what moves them to action, more than feeling despair,” Lowe said, in her first public appearance as research lead.

Now in its second year, Define American’s research with the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism analyzes immigrant representation on TV and asks whether the stories viewers get from shows like Superstore, Orange Is the New Black and Madam Secretary are changing perceptions and behaviors.

The full study is due out in September. You can register for updates on the research from Define American’s Creative Initiatives Team.

Advance findings include:

  • A significant shift in the industry, but with much room for progress around authentic storylines and greater representation of multidimensional immigrant characters
  • Some storylines that evoked positive emotions from viewers — such as happiness — resulted in higher-effort actions, like joining a volunteer group, contacting a newspaper or contacting an elected official

Watch the panel here:


The Sundance panel discussed the research and ways that immigration storylines might be evaluated, a sort of Bechdel test for immigrant portrayals on screen, as Vargas put it.

“We’ve had our lives portrayed from the view of white male writers, directors, producers forever. We’ve seen ourselves from an outside point of view, so there is a place where we actually have to do work to talk to each other,” said Msangi, whose Sundance debut Farewell Amor portrays multiple perspectives on a family reunion at JFK after 17 years of separation. “I’m just going to present it and if you don’t understand it then you might have to do the work to catch up with the immigrant story… and figure out Google.”

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