Liberty Heights (1999): Levinson’s Fourth Feature in Personal Quartet Set in Hometown Baltimore

Liberty Heights was the fourth of Barry Levinson’s “Baltimore Films,” all subjective sagas, set in his hometown, following “Diner” (1982), “Tin Men” (1987), and “Avalon” (1990).

After two big commercial failures, Sleepers and Sphere, it was refreshing to see Levinson revisiting his home turf, even if the tale is too nostalgic.

The quartet of semi-autobiographical, handcrafted features did not follow a chronological order:  Diner (the first and best was set in 1959).  Liberty Heights is set circa 1954, when American society was still segregated, both in terms of white vs. black, and more specifically  and poignantly Jewish vs. gentile.

The Kurtzman family lives in Forest Park, a Jewish suburb in North Baltimore, where the patriarch Nate (Joe Mantegna) runs a dying burlesque theatre, but the money comes from a numbers racket.

His wife Ada is a stay-home” mom, who takes care of the household and offers her prejudiced opinions about shiksas and the lifestyle of the “other.”  Van (Adrian Brody), the older son, attends the University of Baltimore, while Ben (Ben Forster) is finishing high school.

Ben soon meets and falls for Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), an African-American girl, and the couple realize their shared love for Little Richard, James Brown, and jazz.  However, Sylvia’s father, an affluent doctor, disapproves of their relationship and forbids her to see him.

On Halloween, Ben dresses up as Adolf Hitler, which offends his parents. Van and his friends head over to a party in a gentile section of town. Van is attracted to a mysterious blonde woman. A fight between one of Van’s buddies and a gentile erupts and Trey drunkenly crashes his car into the house.

When Trey goes to court for the car crash, Van and his friends serve as witnesses. After the court, Van asks about the blonde woman he had met, who turns out to be Trey’s girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Nate’s burlesque theatre has problems. In order to boost returns on the numbers game, an additional bonus number is added. Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), a local drug dealer, makes a bet and miraculously hits the number. Unable to pay, Nate offers Melvin the business instead. But Melvin accuses Nat for trying to “Jew” him out of his money and a fight breaks out between their bodyguards.

Sylvia gives Ben two tickets to see James Brown & The Famous Flames, and Ben and his friend are the only white patrons in the audience.

Melvin then spots Nate’s car in the African-American neighborhood where James Brown is in concert and after seeing Ben and friend, he assumes that one of them is Nate’s son. After the concert, Melvin abducts Ben, Sylvia, and their friends from the concert in a payback to Nate’s racket.

Van learns that Trey is in surgery after a car accident, and he and Dubbie visit him in Virginia.

Nate and associates at the club are charged and booked with prostitution and racketeering. Before leaving for prison, he manages to attend Ben and Sylvia’s school graduation. She is attending Spelman College in Atlanta; he plans to go to the University of Maryland.

A sprawling saga, marked with the right balance of humor and affection for all the characters, Liberty Heights is a lovingly detailed memory film.  Cars serve as much more than moving vehicles in Levinson’s films, and here, he makes a point to show that the father always drives this year’s Cadillac.

Despite mostly favorable reviews, the film was a box-office failure, earning only a fracture of its $11 million budget.

Running time: 127 minutes

Release date: Nov 17, 1999.