Film: Liberty Heights


Cast includes: Adrien Brody (The Pianist), Ben Foster (The Messenger), Joe Montegna (The House That Jack Built), Orlando Jones (Runaway Jury)
Writer/director: Barry Levinson (Diner, High Anxiety)
Genre: Historic-based, humorous drama (1999)

In brief: “Growing up in the northwest section of Baltimore, I used to think the whole world was Jewish.” When Ben Kurtzman was invited to a classmate’s house for lunch he confronted, for the first time, a sandwich made with “raw bread.” That’s when he learned about “the other kind.” Eventually, Ben learned that the other kind comprised about 99% of the world. But Liberty Heights still remained a safe haven for kids growing up Jewish in Baltimore.

By 1954, when the movie opens, Ben and his brother Van are regularly making excursions into the world beyond Liberty Heights. The Turkey Hill Swim Club posts a sign that says, “No Jews, dogs or coloreds.” Ben’s friends ponder the why the ban puts Jews above dogs and coloreds. In the meantime, the whole world is changing. For the first time, “coloreds” will be attending the public schools. When Mrs. Kurtzman asks Ben how the coloreds are doing in school, Ben mentions, “the girl is pretty attractive.” “Just kill me now!” Mrs. Kurtzman replies. There’s no doubt about it… the world is changing on many levels. When Van attends a Halloween party on the other side of Falls Road, he meets a beautiful Cinderella… complete with magic wand. He falls for her big time, even though she’s totally unattainable. In the meantime, Sylvia, that colored girl in Ben’s class, really has captured Ben’s interest. Ben’s so taken with her that he follows her home from school one day. They strike up a friendship, and Ben becomes fascinated with everything “Negro”… the music, the comedy, the realization that Sylvia doesn’t need to be a part of the white world.

Diner is Barry Levinson’s first and most famous “Baltimore movie.” All of his Baltimore movies are semi-autobiographical and richly filled with nostalgia of the era and place. I find Liberty Heights to be the one that pulls all the elements together into the most engaging story. It’s both personal and universal. Anyone who lived through this era can relate to something in the movie because it touches on so many socially significant topics. It’s filled with great music, wonderful details and ironic humor.

popcorn rating

4 popped kernels

Popped kernels for the wonderful story, great characters, excellent script, fun story with historic interest. It transports us beautifully to a particular place and time when really interesting changes were taking place.

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