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Culture Clash

February 22, 2010

by John Farr

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

Hester Street (1975)


After emigrating from Russia in the late 1800s, Jewish immigrant Jake (Steven Keats) has shed all the outer signs of his heritage, including side locks and traditional clothing, and settled into a bustling, profitable life on New York’s Lower East Side. So he is less than thrilled when his wife Giti (Carol Kane) joins him five years later, and seems unwilling to relinquish her Old World values. She, in turn, is dismayed by the profound change that has taken place in Jake.


A low-key, moving story about the conflict between tradition and modernity as it is played out in the confines of a marriage, Silver’s “Hester Street” is a lovely period piece that earned newcomer Kane an Oscar nomination for her sensitive portrayal of Giti, who must cope not only with Jake’s cultural transformation, but the fact of his new lover as well. Silver went on to become a busy movie director, but her authentic evocation of a woman’s struggles in turn-of-the-century New York in this quietly assured debut remains her finest work to date. Made on a modest budget, “Hester Street” has a homemade feel that perfectly suits its subject.

The Namesake (2007)


After an arranged marriage in 1970s Calcutta, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) moves with his bride Ashima (Tabu) to New York City in hopes of a bright future as an engineer. The adjustment is hard on Ashima, a homesick Hindi speaker only barely fluent in English, but they persevere. Years later, their Americanized teenage children Sonia (Sahira Nair) and eldest son Gogol (Kal Penn) present a wholly new challenge, as they resent their parents’ conservative values and seem disconnected from their Indian heritage. But family ties prove hard to break.


Based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, Nair’s chronicle of the Indian-American immigrant experience is sensitive, intelligent, and surprisingly true-to-life, especially as it focuses on the rebellious Gogol’s conflicted relationship with Ashoke, whom he neither respects nor seems willing to understand. When he acquires a perky WASP girlfriend at Yale, Gogol finds himself poised between the world he wants to dissociate from (old India) and the one he feels he belongs to (mainstream America). Wisdom arrives, as it often does, in the form of a crisis, and Nair makes sure we earn the catharsis her excellent young actor eventually undergoes.

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  • Nikki

    Great catagory! My first thought was “The Namesake,” too. “Hester Street,” yes! I’d also add “Crossing Delancey,” with the wonderful Reizl Bozyk as Amy Irving’s Bubbie, as a culture within a culture clash. Then, “Bend It Like Beckham,” Robin Williams in “Moscow on the Hudson,” and the battle between Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala in “Lilies Of The Field.” Then the funny and charming “Bride & Prejudice,” Martin Ritt’s “Conrack,” and that wonderful classroom scene when they children listen to the Flight of the Bummble Bee. And finally, the classic “South Pacific,” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

  • Jude

    Hester Street is also one of my favorite films, for many of the same reasons. My own famiy’s experience starts at a later time period: my Gran (a Jewish Yankee) grew up on Allen St., Gramps (a thinly-disguised “greenhorn”) on Hester…they met on a picket line for the AFL-CIO. So I’m somewhat predisposed to my own, presumptive, sepia-infused nostalgic visions…When Hester Street came out (or perhaps when I discovered it many years ago). Any chance I get to discuss Hester Street with a fellow admirer I jump at the chance, both to embrace this wonderful female filmmaker and our shared culture. And even though it is ever-changing, to recognize that most immigrant experience is more similar than we’d like to think. It’s with pride that I note that at the time of my exposure to the film I bore a noted resemblance to Carol Kane (not so much anymore…). This film resonates for me on so many levels — as a New Yorker, as a Jewish woman in film, as a history buff, as a storyteller — and I love revisiting it every few years. It’s both grounding and inspiring in its complicated simplicity. I still think it’s one of Silver’s best, if not the best.

  • roy125

    Hester Street is a good one.
    Talking about culture clash, I also like the war film’s depicting appreciation for the humanity and honor of the enemy, as opposed to more common John Wayne type movie where the enemy represents expendable trash. The British learn the hard way not to take the skilled Zulu warriors for granted in Cy Endfield’s “Zulu” (1964), of course, the British learn to respect the Japanese in “Bridge over the River Kwai” (1957), and more recently, the American soldiers look at the Japanese enemy in a new way in Clint Eastwood’s wonderful “Letters From Iwo Jima” (2006). Speaking of Eastwood, it’s hard to forget his 2008 film about a bigoted Korean war veteran who grudgingly learns to appreciate the Hmong families taking over his Michigan neighborhood. “Gran Torino” contains one of the most moving finales in recent memory.