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'Motherless Brooklyn' blends racism of 1950s New York with an old-school whodunit

Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson says the movie’s director and lead actor, Edward Norton, handles racism in the film “brilliantly."
Image: Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in \"Motherless Brookyln.\"
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in "Motherless Brookyln."Glen Wilson / Warner Bros.

Michael Eric Dyson, the writer, reverend and Georgetown professor, was so moved by the film “Motherless Brooklyn” that he says some of the movie’s themes may show up in his sermons.

Dyson says that the movie’s director and lead actor, Edward Norton, handles racism in the film “brilliantly,” without being preachy or displaying an air of pseudo wokeness.

“Motherless Brooklyn” essentially has two trains running and meeting at unusual junctions. Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog, is determined to solve the murder of his mentor and boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who ran a car service that doubles as a detective agency in Brooklyn. Alec Baldwin is at his scoundrelly best (or is it worst?) as New York City planner Moses Randolph, who could care less about the people being pushed out by urban renewal and gentrification.

“As a black person watching this film,” Dyson said in an interview, “what struck me was that finally a white auteur, a white director, a white thinker on film is grappling organically with difference, with hardship, with trying to come to grips with who’s been left out and who’s marginal and seeing that also attached to the issue of race.”

The film also features Gugu Mbatha-Raw as activist-lawyer Laura Rose, who’s trying to protect parts of Clinton Hill and Fort Greene in Brooklyn; Robert Ray Wisdom as her father, the owner of a Harlem jazz club, where Michael K. Williams performs as a trumpet player; and Willem Dafoe as Randolph’s disgusted brother, Paul. The African American billionaire Robert F. Smith, who wiped out the debt for the Morehouse College class of 2019, helped to finance the film.

Based on Jonathan Lethem’s best-selling novel of the same name, “Motherless Brooklyn” also refers to orphaned communities and Minna’s nickname for Essrog, who grew up in an orphanage. Essrog has Tourette Syndrome, which causes him to repeat movements and words, sometimes out of order and context. Some people dismiss him because of the tics, but his laser-sharp memory appeals to Minna and serves as his secret weapon in sorting through clues.

Norton secured the film rights to the book in 1999, the same year he starred in “Fight Club.”

“The thing that drew me to it was the character of Lionel – this chaotic, lonely, smart Tourettic detective,” Norton told NBC News.

However, studios weren’t exactly clamoring for a film based on a Tourettic detective — even one adapted from an award-winning book and starring a multiple Oscar nominee in a talented ensemble cast. In the interim, Norton revamped the script; starred in films ranging from “The Score” to “Birdman”; and directed his first film, “Keeping the Faith,” in which he co-starred with Ben Stiller as the Rev. Brian Finn, a Catholic priest on the verge of losing his religion.

Norton kept Essrog and the Minna men in his script, but took “Motherless Brooklyn” from a standard whodunit to a thinking-person’s mystery with more societal heft. Shifting the setting from the 1990s to the 1950s also allowed him to add more period cars and clothing, more jazz and more depth and to introduce a power-hungry character based on the prolific developer Robert Moses during his heyday.

Moses was lauded for setting the standard for the nation’s public work projects, while also being criticized for setting the standard for displacement. Roughly 250,000 people — the population of a midsize city — lost their homes in the name of Moses-style progress in New York alone.

“People will be heartened by the fact that an artist who is addressing these universal themes also pays attention to their lethal consequence for communities of color,” said Dyson, who also reviewed the film for Esquire magazine. “A powerful scene in the film is one that amplifies and really echoes what James Baldwin said: ‘Urban renewal meant Negro removal.’’’

Moses built most of the bridges and expressways crisscrossing the five boroughs that make up and surround New York City, plus housing projects, higher-income dwellings, stadiums, parks, beaches and even dams in upstate New York. Many of these structures bear his name.

As noted in the film and in Robert Caro’s biography of Moses, “The Power Broker,” Moses ordered that the height of bridges on certain Long Island parkways — including the Southern State, which leads east to Jones Beach — be built low enough to keep out buses, meaning African Americans, Latinos and low-income New Yorkers without cars couldn’t get to the beach.

“These things just don’t happen; they are made to happen,” Norton said. “There’s something powerful if you can get people to wonder, ‘Did they really lower the bridges?’ If people can be forced to alter their thought patterns, then you’ve done something.”

A modern-day consequence is that a driver who was unaware of the height restriction on the Southern State Parkway hit a bridge last year, shearing off the top of his charter bus, injuring dozens of passengers. The parkway, which Moses envisioned for Sunday drivers, also can’t accommodate high speeds in an accident-prone section known as Blood Alley.

“At some point, you realize there’s an opportunity to dig into some of these big themes and entertain, yes, but mostly, what I like about the best films is that they use art to work a hypnosis,” Norton explains, citing Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” about Los Angeles’ “original sin” of siphoning water from rural areas. “Within that hypnosis, they activate the brain around actual ideas without being didactic, without being a polemic.”

While most of Norton’s career has been spent as an actor, he says that stepping into the director’s role is the best of all worlds. He likened it to an eight-layer cake with the ability to sample everything from casting to costume design; to add ingredients from other directors he’s worked with such as Spike Lee (“25th Hour”) or David Fincher (“Fight Club”); or to call Wynton Marsalis about playing the trumpet for Michael K. Williams’ character in “Motherless Brooklyn.” Norton avoids making the film too dense by sprinkling in tender moments and levity, drawing laughter from the audience.

Serving as actor, writer, director and producer also allowed Norton to tap into his family legacy. A social activist and an environmentalist, Norton is the grandson of James Rouse, who had a vision of developing Columbia, Maryland, as a diverse, community-minded city. President Bill Clinton awarded Rouse a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, a year before Rouse died.

Dressed comfortably in a denim shirt and gray pants, Norton smiles at the mention of his grandfather’s name during an interview after a screening in Washington, about 24 miles south of Columbia where he grew up.

Hailed as a socially conscious developer, Rouse started the Enterprise Foundation in 1982 after his retirement to support affordable housing. He also developed Faneuil Hall in Boston, Harbor Place in Baltimore and the South Street Seaport in New York. He is credited with creating the indoor mall and the term “urban renewal,” but wasn’t happy about how it played out in various parts of the country.

Norton began working with his grandfather early on. He serves on the board of trustees of the foundation, now called Enterprise Community Partners, which estimates that it has created 585,000 affordable homes over the last four decades. In writing the script for “Motherless Brooklyn,” Norton drew upon what he learned from his grandfather and believes he would be proud of the outcome.

“I did it as an homage to the things he cared about, and I think he would be very gratified.”

Yanick Rice Lamb is a professor in the department of media, journalism and film at Howard University and co-founder of