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Liberty Heights (1999)

Barry Levinson never gets better than his slice-of-life Baltimore films. Don’t get me wrong—he’s made some amazing studio films (Sleepers, The Natural) and some ambitious misfires that suggest a born filmmaker (Toys, Jimmy Hollywood), but nobody does wry, observational slice-of-life like he does. Liberty Heights stands out from his other work (Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon) because it brings the race component into it. It finally shows the darkness brimming under the typically idealized façade of Levinson’s other Baltimore films.

The three intersecting storylines follow the Kurtzman family as they attempt to expand beyond their Jewish neighborhood into the world of gentiles and African-Americans. High schooler Ben (Ben Foster) develops a crush on black classmate Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), who attends his school now that it’s integrated; 20-something Van (Adrien Brody) chases a gorgeous gentile blonde (Carolyn Murphy); and patriarch Nate (Joe Mantegna), who runs a failing burlesque house as a front for a numbers racket, has some trouble when Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) hits the number and expects a prompt $100,000 payout.

Like life, the story ambles and takes a variety of unexpected turns. In fact, what starts as a peppy, laugh-out-loud slice-of-life quickly turns into a grim yet powerful drama. Levinson presents a large ensemble of deeply flawed characters but doesn’t preach or pass judgment. They’re all bigoted, but once the characters are thrust together, they find a new understanding of the people they once feared and distrusted. If there’s a sermon to take away, it’s the notion that forced interaction is the best way to overcome bigotry and see others for what they are: people. Wisely, Levinson doesn’t spell this out.

Slice-of-life films can sometimes be a gamble. The filmmakers essentially say, “Any audience would love to watch these characters simply hang out.” Levinson has always been a master of deceptively complex plotting, giving his films the feel of characters just hanging out while a legitimately compelling story unfolds. His screenplay does a wonderful job of vividly rendering these characters.

The excellent cast aids Levinson’s screenplay enormously. Ben Foster and Adrien Brody have never been better (not even Brody’s Oscar-winning turn in The Pianist), and the veteran supporting cast (including Bebe Neuwirth, David Krumholtz, and James Pickens, Jr.) create fully realized characters despite their limited screen time. However, the real finds here are Johnson and Murphy. They both do a fantastic job with difficult, nuanced characters. It surprised me to discover neither of them did much acting before or after Liberty Heights.

Simply put, Liberty Heights is a great film. It may not be as flashy as Spike Lee’s similar (but angrier) Do the Right Thing, or as harrowing as the class warfare in something like City of God, but it’s both a great exploration of 1950s race relations and a great slice-of-life.

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