Turner Classic Movie Primetime Host Ben Mankiewicz, left, discusses American movies with Ash Nega, an Atlanta resident who was born and raised in Ethiopia. Nega, owner of the city’s popular Desta Ethiopia Kitchen, said 1979’s ‘The Champ’ impacted him because it showed success over adversity. Their discussion and ‘The Champ’ air tonight, Sept. 16, at 10:30 p.m. (TCM)

This month, Turner Classic Movies is highlighting immigrants’ views of America and what it means to be American through American movies they watched when they were young.

The series runs Friday, Sept. 16 and Friday, Sept. 23, and is called “The Idea of America.”  Before the movies are broadcast, TCM Primetime Host Ben Mankiewicz will have a conversation with several immigrants, including some now living in Atlanta, about the movies “that shaped their idea of the U.S. before they moved here,” according to a TCM news release. 

“They will explore where perception and reality aligned, and what has surprised them about life in America,” the release said.

The lineup for Friday, Sept. 16:

8 p.m.  — “Splendor in the Grass” will be introduced by Gabriel Bitton, who was born and raised in Marrakesh, Morocco. When he was 15, he saw the filming of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in the streets of Morocco, and in high school he won a film camera as a prize in a contest. He moved to France for college, and then came to the U.S. to do his post-doctorate work at Harvard. He is now Professor Emeritus of environmental engineering at the University of Florida. He told TCM that he imagined teenage life in America was just like what he saw portrayed in “Splendor in the Grass,” the 1961 film starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty as high school sweethearts dealing with complicated emotions of sexual repression, love and heartbreak. He married a woman from Columbus, Ohio, who he describes “as American as apple pie,” and he felt the film matched up to his reality in the U.S., according to TCM.

10:30 p.m. — “The Champ” from 1979 and starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway and a young Ricky Schroeder, will be introduced by Ash Nega of Ethiopia. When he was 14, his mother sent him to the U.S. to attend the Oneida Baptist Institute in Oneida, Kentucky, where he could get a scholarship. Despite being in the company of other Ethiopian students, he had a difficult experience there; on arrival, he learned that it was primarily a reformatory school and he felt even further isolated living in a city that was almost completely devoid of diversity, according to TCM. He didn’t speak with his mother for six years after being sent to America, but now says it was the best thing she could have done for him. He excelled in school and earned a scholarship to Cumberland College in Kentucky. In 2006, he and his wife, Titi Demissie, opened Desta Ethiopian Kitchen in Atlanta, widely considered the best Ethiopian restaurant in metro Atlanta and which just recently opened its third location. He told TCM that when he was growing up, he would watch American movies with his family in his community’s one-screen theater. “The Champ” and its story of adversity and success despite being the underdog always resonated with him, Nega told TCM.

12:45 a.m. — “Love Story” from 1970 will be introduced by Crystal Lee of Seoul, South Korea, and who now lives in Los Angeles. She came to the U.S. to study Music Therapy at Michigan State University. After graduating, Lee was accepted to the University of Maryland School of Law, but she was forced to return to Korea due to a family emergency. She came back to the U.S. three years later and completed her degree. She practiced law in Los Angeles, primarily representing Korean companies. In 2011, she began acting on the side. Acting has become her primary profession and she now practices law on the side, she told TCM. Watching the movie “Love Story,” starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal as college students from different social classes who meet and fall in love, spurred her decision to move to America. 

The lineup for Friday, Sept. 23

Ted Ayllón, born in Bolivia and now an Atlanta resident, said he was able to learn English by watch Frank Sinatra sing in the movie ‘Higher and Higher.’ (TCM)

8 p.m. —  “Higher and Higher” from 1943, to be introduced by Ted Ayllón of Bolivia and who now lives in Atlanta. From TCM: “Ted Ayllón came to the U.S. from Bolivia in 1950 on scholarship to attend college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D in Psychology. He taught at the university level for 30 years. Additionally, he did 10 years of behavioral research focused on schizophrenic patients, creating a program known as The Token Economy, still used in institutions to motivate and reward patient behaviors. Ted picked the film “Higher and Higher” to introduce [because] Frank Sinatra is featured as himself. Ayllón says that it was easier to understand English when Sinatra was singing it. He was a teen in Bolivia at the time and had very little exposure to English so the movies were a place for him to learn, as well as have fun.”

10 p.m. —  “Badlands” from 1973 will be introduced by Abdi Iftin of Somalia who is now a resident of Portland, Maine. He learned English from watching American action films. His love of western culture and music earned him the nickname “Abdi American.” This nickname became a liability when Islamic extremism took hold of Somalia, he told TCM. He was able to avoid being forced to join the military by al-Shabaab while secretly filing stories for NPR under penalty of death, he said. He eventually had to escape to Kenya where he spent days hiding silently in an apartment from raids by Kenyan police, passing time reading memoirs and watching more movies. He then won the Diversity Visa Lottery to come to the U.S. and moved to Maine. His story was also the subject of a very popular episode of This American Life. Abdi is introducing “Badlands” which he saw as a kid in Somalia. He said he imagined the U.S. landscape looked very similar to Somalia’s based on this movie: dry, windy, and lots of gun shooting.

Sushma Barakoti of Nepal and now an Atlanta resident will introduce “To Kill A Mockingbird” on Sept. 23. The movie inspired her work in social justice. (TCM)

12 a.m. — “To Kill a Mockingbird” will be introduced by Sushma Barakoti of Nepal and is now an Atlanta resident. Barakoti was born in Nepal and dreamed for years of moving to the United States to pursue an American education. She was enchanted by the rural, beautiful scenery she saw in American films growing up, and when her husband was relocated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, for work, she fell in love with the landscape that felt familiar and comforting based on those movies, she told TCM. Upon arrival to the U.S., she earned her master’s degree in social work from Marywood University and began her family. She is now is the executive director of Refugee Women’s Network based in Atlanta, a nonprofit dedicated to serving refugees who have resettled in the state of Georgia. She also founded Sunavworld, a social enterprise with the mission of promoting sustainable, fairly-traded local and global gifts promoting social justice through the socioeconomic empowerment of artists and artisans, especially women. She said watching “To Kill a Mockingbird” inspired her work in social justice.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.