Liberty Heights

Liberty Heights is the fourth film in Barry Levinson's Baltimore trilogy (the first three were The Diner, Avalon, and Tin Men). There was not supposed to be a fourth film (see definition of 'trilogy'), but the story came about as a result of what Levinson felt was a stereotyping of a character in another one of his films. Liberty Heights is about racism, though the treatment of it is gentle, and almost nostalgic. It is a serious film, yet is replete with moments that are hilariously funny. The reason it works is because the racism in it is not mean spirited (huh?). Many of the people in Liberty Heights are just ignorant. The parents act this way because of their upbringing, and know nothing better. To one grandmother, a person was either a Jew or a part of the "other kind." The children were different. They are exposed to difference cultures and different people, so the attitudes of their parents are baffling. It is a generation gap that is still present in today's families. The movie takes place in the fifties, around the time schools desegregated. Whites lived in their own section of town, blacks in theirs, and the Jews of Baltimore lived in the Liberty Heights area.

The Kurtzman family is at the center of this film. Nate (Joe Mantegna, Celebrity, Up Close and Personal) is the patriarch of the family. He runs a failing burlesque theater and an illegal numbers racket on the side. Nate cares deeply for his family, and realizes that his business is failing. Ada (Bebe Neuwirth, Summer of Sam, Celebrity) is the mother, also caring, and probably one of the more ignorant members of the family. Their older son Van is in college, so he is much more open. A beautiful woman (model Carolyn Murphy) infatuates him at a party in the 'white' area of town, and he sets out to try to find her after an abrupt end to the party. Van's younger brother Ben (Ben Foster, NBC's Freaks and Geeks) is still in high school. He befriends Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the only black girl in his class. Their friendship grows, much to the dismay of both their parents, and provides the emotional core of the story. In their conversations, Sylvia shatters and preconceived notions Ben has about African-Americans. She also introduces him to James Brown and other music he never heard before, but is instantly drawn to. Ben is eager to open his mind to new things, and does not care at all about the skin color of Sylvia. She is just a new friend who he enjoys spending time with, and she happens to be black.

Levinson's (Donnie Brasco, Analyze This) script is a gem. The situations point out just how ridiculous some notions about race are, in a way that is both amusing and poignant. Levinson's Baltimore is in a state of flux, caught between an outdated way of thinking, and the newer, more open way. A scene at the graduation near the end neatly captures much of the spirit of the movie. The act is sweet and innocent, but the parent's reaction to it fits exactly with their method of thinking, so outdated and ridiculous by today's standards. It does cause a good laugh for the audience, but at the same time, is sad. The cast consists of both veteran and first time film actors, and the performances are good enough that it is hard to tell who is new and who is not. Longer running times are a rising trend in today's films, and even with a running time of over two hours, Liberty Heights does not seem long enough.

Mongoose Rates It: Really Good.
2 hours, 12 minutes, Rated R for crude language and sex-related material.

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