The DVD release of Ellis Island is cause for quiet celebration. Produced in 1997 for the History Channel, this documentary is divided into three chronological segments (each approximately 45 minutes in length) which highlight and then detail the history of what one academic describes as the "foyer" into America. Book-ended with commentary and narrated throughout by Mandy Patinkin, Ellis Island is a fascinating, wholly engrossing tale very well told. If you think you know quite a bit about this facility, you may be proven wrong in the most pleasantly surprising of manners. I will go into some details regarding content, but will intentionally leave quite a bit out – this experience is as stimulating to the mind as it is rewarding to the emotions, and I'd simply hate to spoil anyone else's enjoyment.
Ellis Island utilizes still photographs, archival film elements, and emigrant testimonies, all to great effect. There are also interviews with historians and other academics, which nicely balances the individual reminiscences with pertinent information on a larger scale. As can be expected, there are many heartwarming tales to be heard, but there are also tales of heartbreak and exclusion, of discrimination and shortsightedness. All are situated within a thorough, quick-moving historical context which renders it all the more insightful.
Part One: The initial installment sets up an excellent overview of the issues to be covered, and, like any great story, effectively leaves the viewer itching for more. A few snippets: the precursor to Ellis Island was called Castle Garden, which operated successfully for four decades; in its 62-year history, more than 12 million individuals were introduced to the United States via Ellis Island; four out of ten Americans (myself included) can trace some ancestry back to the facility; initially made of Georgia wood, it burned to the ground in June of 1897 and was rebuilt and reopened in 1900 at a cost $1.5 million; the first official entry was Annie Moore, a "rosy-cheeked" Irish lass whose story made the New York Times on January 2, 1892. There's plenty more of interest, but I won't divulge it here.
Part Two: Immigration patterns, as well as the actual experience of would-be Americans landed at the island, is explored in great detail. The facility could process up to five thousand people a day; however, demand for entry was so great that it was not uncommon for upwards of twenty thousand people to be hovering around the island in ships awaiting processing. As the tides of immigration grew, so too did anti-immigrant sentiment, resulting in a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the formation of the Immigration Restriction League (one gentleman notes that there was a saying he heard in his homeland: "America beckons; Americans repel"). The government, reflecting the changing tide, responded by creating and enforcing increasingly difficult parameters (but not yet quotas) for entry. For example, if an immigrant mentioned that he or she had work already lined up in America, he or she would automatically be turned back, since that would take away a job from an existing citizen already within the country. If an unescorted woman entered the island, she was not allowed to leave without sponsorship (for fear of prostitution and being taken advantage of). Health also became a major concern, and potential citizens were screened for both physical and psychological "defects." The dreaded blue chalk, and its reasons for use, are discussed thoroughly: if it was used, for any of myriad reasons, it could possibly prevent entry. Hence, Ellis Island was also known as "Hell's Island" and the "Isle of Tears" to many.
Part Three: Perhaps the most poignant - and certainly the darkest - segment of the documentary, part three explores the increasing restrictions immigrants faced as the nation's mood turned toward suspicion. Based largely upon fears of anarchists, radicals, and contract laborers, Congress enacted quotas which severely curtailed entry into the United States. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1893 that immigrants had no legal rights (and therefore no rights to counsel), detainees were increasingly at the mercy of boards of inquiry that were established to determine eligibility of admittance. Five of every six detainees ultimately made it through the island, but the tenor of the country had clearly changed. With the onset of World War I, emigration to the United States was virtually stopped, and in the twenties, quotas were tightened once again by Congress. In the thirties and forties, immigration was ground to an almost complete halt, and Ellis Island became a de facto detention center. In 1954, Ellis Island officially closed.
Ellis Island sat in shameful neglect for decades after; it was put up for sale in the 1950's, but no one purchased it. In 1965, President Johnson made it an official part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, and the main building was renovated in 1984 by virtue of private donations only.
Video: The Ellis Island DVD is presented in a full frame format (1.33:1). Some of the latter-day footage of the island itself, as well as the New York City skyline (including the Twin Towers) suffers from some shimmering and graininess. Some of the archival footage, as one would expect, is damaged, but it adds to the overall tone of nostalgia and history. The interviews, as well as Patinkin's opening and closing segments, look fine. The video is perfectly adequate, if nothing remarkable.
Audio: Ellis Island is presented in DD 2.0 stereo, and for the most part it sounds fine. There are, however, two odd instances of audio dropout, and then an increase of volume, at the very beginnings of Parts Two and Three, but they are short-lived. Dialogue proves easy to hear, and the music (which is mostly complimentary) is nicely mixed into the overall presentation.
Extras: Included is a timeline, which notes specific dates of interest relative to the more critical facts concerning Ellis Island, most (if not all) of which are covered in much greater detail in the documentary itself. It should also be noted that there are no English subtitles included – which is not really a problem, although there is an instant or two in which some of the heavily accented testimony is difficult to follow.
Final Thoughts: Ellis Island is a valuable, infinitely interesting and ultimately very moving documentary. It works extremely well as both a historical examination of America's chief portal for immigrants and as a valuable sociological exploration of America's changing moods toward the very notion of immigration. On a personal note, two of my great-grandfathers passed through Ellis Island (I was able to find records of their passenger manifests and official entries) - to be given a glimpse of what they may have gone through at the facility deeply personalized my experience. Moreover, my surname was officially altered there – according to the documentary, this was not a result of attempted "Americanization" (as I had been told as a child), but rather (and more likely) simple lack of proper communication. Ellis Island is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in American history, and most certainly to anyone whose family was shaped - for good or ill - by the island.