The most striking aspect about 1954 Baltimore in writer-director Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights is just how little different ethnic groups knew about each other only a few generations ago.
Growing up in the Liberty Heights neighborhood, Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster) assumed being Jewish was the norm, until he got a rude awakening with the kind of open bigotry expressed by the sign posted outside a Baltimore country club: No Jews, Dogs or Colored Allowed.
Shortly after the precocious, good-natured Ben begins to contemplate his status in the outside world, integration comes to his high school, and he becomes fascinated with Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the immensely self-possessed daughter of a black doctor. Their fast friendship leads hesitantly to a budding romance, which gives Ben’s friends the excuse to conduct a running commentary that would be considered intentionally racist if it didn’t stem from such woeful ignorance.
But this seems to be Levinson’s intent with Liberty Heights, to challenge stereotypes and pinpoint a moment when the rigid segregation of America – divisions imposed not just by race and religion but class – were beginning to break down.
In parallel story lines about crossing boundaries, Ben’s college student brother, Van (Adrien Brody), awkwardly enters the rarefied world of rich WASPs when he falls impossibly in love with shiksa goddess Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy) and befriends her self-destructive boyfriend Trey (Justin Chambers). Meanwhile, their father, Nate (Joe Mantegna), who runs a burlesque house as a front for an illegal numbers racket, must find a way to pay off Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), a flamboyant black drug dealer who hits the jackpot in this underground lottery.
The fourth of Levinson’s films to explore Baltimore in the ‘50s (following Diner, Tin Men and Avalon), Liberty Heights captures the specifics of a shifting cultural landscape in offbeat moments, like an enthusiastic audience cheering on a stripper who deconstructs her good-girl sweater set and pleated skirt instead of raunchy sequined gear.
In his immensely chatty and earnestly nostalgic time capsules, Barry Levinson relishes the opportunity to peel off the polite facade that still defines the ‘50s.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].