by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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As immigrants settle in the United States from countries all across the world, the U.S. population tends to resemble a Benetton Clothing or Gap ad—many cultures mixed in together, and all existing side by side.
In a delightful movie that epitomizes the melting pot that America, and specifically New York City, has become, DeKalb, Illinois-born actor Richard Jenkins has a lead role as a complacent, Connecticut college professor who’s grown accustomed to recycling syllabi and trying to find some solace in learning classical piano.
In The Visitor, Walter reluctantly travels to New York City for a conference to represent his college and present a paper that he admittedly didn’t co-author but one on which he just signed off. He finds himself back at his apartment after a few years, and as a widower since his wife has died, but things aren’t as he’d left them.
Upon arriving in New York, he discovers his apartment has been rented to a Syrian drummer named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his beautiful Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), both of whom we’ll discover are in the United States without proper government documentation.
Tarek makes a living playing club gigs and participating in drum circles in locations throughout the city, and Zainab makes African jewelry, selling her wares at an open market.
After an awkward introduction, Walter feels sorry for them and eventually convinces the couple to stay at the apartment, while they look for other accommodations. Zainab is a bit chilled toward Walter in the beginning. She’s, I gather, a bit resentful and embarrassed because of the circumstances, probably feeling like a squatter or interloper in his apartment.
She eschews any extra interaction with Walter and begrudgingly watches as he and Tarek forge a friendship, with Tarek teaching Walter how to play the West African djeme drum. It is after one of Tarek and Walter’s escapades into Central Park to play drums that all hell breaks loose. Tarek is arrested for supposedly jumping the turnstile at the Metro station, although he had paid both fares. The police take him to a detention center in Queens, while he awaits his fate.
With Tarek’s arrest, Zainab has no choice but to trust Walter to help her out, as she’s prevented from going to the detention center, because she is likely to get arrested also. Worried that she’s not heard from him for a few days, Tarek’s mother, Mouna, (Hiam Abbass) suddenly shows up at the apartment, after travelling from Michigan looking for him.
What evolves is a celebration of freedom for Walter, as the entire situation tugs at his heart and his conscience, since he has bonded with the couple. Walter briefly returns to Connecticut, subsequently takes a leave of absence from his professorship and comes back to New York to help.
What also ensues is the first meeting between Zainab and Mouna, who didn’t know her son’s girlfriend was African. As she approaches Zainab’s jewelry stand, she tells Walter that Zainab is “very Black.”
Walter throws all caution to the wind, hires an attorney to help Tarek, and surprisingly has a good time with Mouna, enjoying meals with her, even taking her to see The Phantom of the Opera; all acts of kindness on Walter’s part that eventually develop into an unlikely romance for both of them.
In the end, Walter experiences life as he probably hasn’t since his wife’s death. He does what he can to help Tarek, learning along the way, also, that being an upper-class professor from Connecticut isn’t enough to get his friend out of detention and not nearly enough influence to fight Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He also breaks through his shell, while doing what he hadn’t in a long time—enjoying life and dancing (both literally and figuratively) to the beat of a different drum.
The Visitor is a movie that speaks to the spontaneity of life; one of unexpected friend—and kinship with people who, if not for a twist of fate, you would not normally come across.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, freelance writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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