January 13, 2010
The 1999 film, “Liberty Heights,” is another Barry Levinson movie about growing up Jewish in Baltimore.
Set in the mid-1950s, this coming-of-age film tells the stories of Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster), his older brother Van (Adrien Brody), and their father Nate (Joe Mantegna). The increasing interaction between the Jewish and the African-American communities takes center stage in this coming-of-age story.
I recently saw this movie with a date [now my wife!], Natasha Agee, who happens to be an African-American woman. Afterwards, we had a fascinating dialogue. That conversation follows here:
Jonathan: Wow. I really liked that movie.
Natasha: Me too.
Jonathan: What did you enjoy the most?
Natasha: I was particularly intrigued by the contrasts between the races and classes in the movie. I think the director mixed and blended those groups very well. And I thought the transitions were very well done with the music.
Jonathan: Oh yes, the music was really good. What a great soundtrack!
Natasha: The music was incredible.
Jonathan: You know, that time was a very exciting one for popular music with the Rhythm and Blues spilling over into the mainstream and the birth of Rock and Roll. I loved it all, but I think the real musical highlight of the film was the James Brown performance.
Natasha: Yes. What an incredible concert! The actor who portrayed James Brown sure captured his spirit, with the energy and the frenzy and the dancing. It was a very spirited performance. I would have loved to have been at that concert. And how great to see the Jewish characters discovering this incredible music. They had never heard it before but this was something they could share and enjoy and it wasn’t just for one group of people.
Jonathan: Yea, I think this film, which is about growing up, is mainly about the discovery of the greater world. I mean, it begins with Ben talking about when he was little he thought everybody was Jewish because that was his own tiny world. But when he was around seven years old, he discovers there are non-Jewish people. I think that’s a great way to start this film because it’s about discovering the outside world. And certainly the Jewish boy discovering African-American music is a major part of that.
Natasha: And of course, also, the African-American love-interest. I love that part of the story. You know what interested me most was that Ben was initially drawn to Sylvia [Rebekah Johnson] by noticing how reverential she was during the recitation of the 23rd Psalm [which, in those days, students said at the beginning of every school day]. I think because he was Jewish, it stirred something in him. This was a tie between them.
Jonathan: Yes. But it’s ironic because when they finally get together and discuss it, she turns to him and says, “So what does the 23rd Psalm mean to you?” And he says, “Quite honestly, I have no idea. It’s just something you say. I don’t think about it.” And so, for him, it’s a Christian that’s opening up his world to something that’s Jewish. And that’s something they can share because, as a Christian, she has just as much interest in the psalms as the Jews. And I just love how the relationship between Ben and Sylvia develops. It’s wonderful. And of course it also gets very funny.
Natasha: As young love should!
Natasha: And of course it’s funny when Sylvia’s father [James Pickens Jr.] comes home and discovers a white Jewish boy hiding in her closet. He reacts the way you would expect for a respectable man who is pursuing the American Dream. That’s what status meant—that you imitate but you don’t associate.
Jonathan: So you were pleased with the way African-Americans were represented in this movie?
Natasha: Well, while that portrayal of Sylvia’s family, an upper-to-middle class Black family, was pretty much accurate for the times, I was deeply concerned about the portrayal of a different African-American character, Little Melvin [Orlando Jones]. He came across in a much more negative way, but not necessarily because he was of the criminal element. Rather it was because he was portrayed as buffoonish. One of the things I’ve learned from the HBO series “The Wire” is that there was a real person named Little Melvin Williams who inspired the show. He was a drug kingpin in Baltimore for over thirty years and was apparently quite clever and successful. So to see him portrayed so ineptly here was a bit off-putting for me. But in general, yes, I was pleased with the way the African-Americans in this film were portrayed.
Jonathan: I thought it was an interesting comparison-contrast between the Jewish and the African-American cultures. You mentioned Sylvia’s father who was strongly opposed to his daughter dating a white boy; well, the Jewish mother [Bebe Neuwirth] was also opposed to her son being with an African-American girl. And it’s so funny when she says, “Well, what are the Coloreds like?” And Ben says, “Well, she’s attractive.” And the mother says, “Well kill me now!”
Natasha: Exactly. And as the movie goes on and Ben’s world expands, it does so for the rest of the family too. So in the end they’re not quite so shocked. Yea, they’re a bit surprised but it’s not like oh-my-gosh-I’m-going-to-have-a-heart-attack.
Jonathan: One of the things that the movie made me think about is how much Jews and African-Americans have in common, being persecuted for anti-Semitism and for racism.
Natasha: I would agree.
Jonathan: And of course, only a little bit later, when the Civil Rights movement starts, Jews become very strong supporters of that. I think it’s interesting that this film is set during the academic year of 54-55. It’s just after the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling and just before the Civil Rights movement starts with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, so it’s right in between the two.
Natasha: Yes, it’s a really important moment in history. For everyone. Even the upper-class whites, which I thought was really interesting. I really enjoyed the way they were portrayed and how Van, Ben’s brother, wanted to be a part of that world. At first it looked to him like a dream come true. But then he got a look inside at how people were really living and what was at their core. And he realized all that glitters isn’t gold.
Jonathan: Exactly. I think that’s a great subplot. I was fascinated by how quickly Van falls in love with the dream-girl [Carolyn Murphy]. He has, what, two minutes with her? And he becomes totally obsessed with her. He spends the rest of the film trying to find her, and when he finally gets this dream-come-true where he’s in a hotel room with her and they’re on the bed and they’re kissing, what could be greater than that? And then all of a sudden the whole thing falls apart and he doesn’t know what’s going on.
Natasha: Because he thinks she has it all together. But that’s not the case. All the characters were really complex.
Jonathan: Like Trey [Justin Chambers]. I thought Trey was a particularly interesting character. Because when we first meet him, we make assumptions about him. He’s wild and crazy, he crashes his car into a barn, and then he finds out that Van likes his girlfriend. You think that he’s going to pull some sort of nasty stunt. But instead it’s the opposite. He basically decides to look out for Van. Now, of course, his plan backfires, but he has the best of intentions.
Natasha: I was very surprised at that. The relationship that develops between Van and Trey was a real delight in the movie.
Jonathan: Another really interesting character, of course, at the heart of the story, is Nate, Ben and Van’s father.
Natasha: Yes, he was a very interesting character.
Jonathan: Well let me say, as a Jew, I was somewhat dismayed to see a Jew behaving the way he does. He’s running a numbers racket, which of course is illegal. And his “legitimate” business is a burlesque.
Natasha: With some vaudeville thrown in.
Jonathan: Which is kind of borderline legitimate. It’s legal, but it’s still morally questionable. Now as a Jew, whenever I turn on the news and see people like Bernie Madoff and the rabbis who were arrested for money laundering in New Jersey a couple of months ago, it’s embarrassing because we like to think, as Jews, that we’re a moral people and that this is not Jewish behavior. Well, it’s certainly against Jewish teaching, but there are Jews who do behave this way. It’s not something Jews like to be reminded of, but it’s there.
Natasha: Now I didn’t have the same reaction as you, looking at Nate. From my perspective, I think about the way the criminal element is portrayed in African-American communities; usually if a father is involved in those kinds of activities it’s very damaging to the family. While I certainly thought Nate had questionable morals and it was kind of ironic that he was Jewish, I thought he was a good person because he provided for his family, he tried to get home for the Sabbath, he tried to connect to his boys, he was a good husband. He didn’t hurt anyone.
Jonathan: You’re right. He was certainly trying to be fair. Like when Little Melvin hit the number, he did his best to try to honor the debt. And find a fair way to deal with it.
Natasha: I was expecting a different solution. I really was. I totally thought I knew what was coming. But I was really surprised.
Jonathan: And another thing about Nate. There’s a scene in the beginning of the film where they’re sitting around the table and he’s talking about Joe McCarthy. Nate was basically defending the people that McCarthy was prosecuting. He says, well, if you’re a Communist and you’re going to blow up something or hurt someone, yea, you should be prosecuted, but you shouldn’t be prosecuted simply because you believe in a different political or economic system. Now this is 1954. At that time, not many people were saying that.
Natasha: Because of his opinions about that, it made me look upon him more favorably despite the moral color, or lack thereof, of his enterprise. I thought he was basically a good guy, for the most part.
Jonathan: I think, to some extent, that might come from his Jewish background. Because, as Jews, as a people, we’ve often been persecuted for our beliefs, not for anything that we did. And, of course, the other thing is that Judaism, as a religion, teaches that actions are far more important than beliefs. So I can definitely see how that would get transferred to what he was saying about Communists.
Natasha: So what was your favorite scene in the movie?
Jonathan: My favorite was the scene where Ben and Sylvia are on the bedroom floor listening to the African-American music and comedians. I just loved the interplay between the two of them as she was so thrilled to be sharing this with him and he was so excited to be discovering it. And they were discovering each other.
Natasha: Yes, it was a really sweet scene.
Jonathan: Yea. So what was your favorite?
Natasha: There were so many scenes that I enjoyed but the one I liked best was the scene where Ben comes down for Halloween dressed as Hitler. He was intending to shock the family, of course. But when I think about it now, I wonder just how innocent he was because, as someone commented, the war had ended nine years before. For Ben, that’s more than half his lifetime. It reminded me of a documentary I had seen about the bombing of Hiroshima, “White Light / Black Rain,” and learning that there are some kids in Japan who don’t know that that happened it all. I thought to myself, “How could you not know of this colossal thing?” But they don’t because it’s not part of their life. So I think that’s where Ben was. He was thinking, “This is going to be funny; I’m going to dress like Hitler,” and didn’t realize what it was going to stir up, especially in a Jewish home.
Jonathan: From his point-of-view, it was all ancient history. He might as well have dressed up like Julius Caesar. But he learns a lot from the experience.
Natasha: Exactly. It takes him to the next level of maturity.
Jonathan: And I think he proves it at the end, when he tries to do something shocking, again. What he does at the lake and what he does in the graduation scene is a very different kind of shock. I think, because of his experience with Sylvia, he has learned what kind of things are worth standing up for. The right to dress up as Hitler for Halloween is no where near as important as other rights, such as those involving human relationships.
Natasha: Yes, that’s a great point.
Jonathan: And, now that I think about it, I guess it’s appropriate that it happens at a graduation ceremony.
Natasha: Yea; yea. Oh my Goodness! I want to watch it again. That’s so awesome. Let’s go watch it again.
Jonathan: Sure. Let’s watch it again.
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