Liberty Heights is a 1999 American comedy-drama film written and directed by Barry Levinson. The film is a semi-autobiographical account of his childhood growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s. Portrayed are the racial injustices experienced both by the Jewish and African-American populations. Both of Nate Kurtzman's sons find women "prohibited" to them; for Van because he is Jewish and white, and for Ben because he is white. Their father goes to prison for running a burlesque show with Little Melvin, an African-American and known local drug dealer.

Liberty Heights
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBarry Levinson
Written byBarry Levinson
Produced by
CinematographyChristopher Doyle
Edited byStu Linder
Music byAndrea Morricone
Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • November 17, 1999 (1999-11-17) (United States)
Running time
127 minutes
Budget$11 million
Box office$3.7 million

It is the fourth of Levinson's tetralogy "Baltimore Films", set in his hometown during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s: Diner (1982), Tin Men (1987) and Avalon (1990).[1]

Plot Edit

In the fall of 1954, the Kurtzmans, a Jewish family, live in Forest Park, a suburban neighborhood in northwest Baltimore. Nate, the father, runs a burlesque theater, and engages in a numbers racket. His wife Ada is a housewife. Van, the older son, attends the University of Baltimore, and Ben is in his senior year in high school.

Ben meets Sylvia, an African-American girl, who begins attending his school after the district has been integrated. Ben immediately starts to develop feelings towards Sylvia, and introduces himself. They become close based on a mutual love for Little Richard, James Brown, jazz, and black comedians. Sylvia's father, an affluent doctor, disapproves of their relationship and forbids them to see one another.

On Halloween, Ben dresses up as Adolf Hitler, which shocks his parents greatly, and he's forbidden to go in public wearing it. Van and his friends head over to a party in a predominantly bourgeois, gentile section of town. He is attracted to a mysterious blonde woman. A fight between one of Van's buddies and a gentile erupts over his Jewishness and Trey, one of the party-goers, drunkenly crashes his car into the house. Van must leave the mystery woman.

Trey goes to court for the car crash. Van and his friends are there as witnesses, but they find ways to avoid testifying against him. After the hearing is over, Van asks several of the other party attendants about the blonde woman he met. Trey discovers that the girl Van has fallen in love with is Dubbie, Trey's own girlfriend.

Meanwhile, Nate's burlesque theatre has problems. In order to boost returns on the numbers game, an additional bonus number is added that will increase the pay-off. Little Melvin, a local drug dealer, makes a large bet, defies expectations, and hits the number. Unable to pay on such a big win, Nate is forced to cut Melvin a 'slice of the pie'. When Nate offers Melvin the numbers business instead, Melvin claims that Nate is trying to "Jew" him out of his money, and a fight breaks out between their bodyguards.

Sylvia gives Ben tickets to see James Brown & The Famous Flames in concert. There, Ben and his friend are the only white patrons in the audience. Van and his friends head out to a gathering, where he again runs into Dubbie and learns she is with Trey.

Little Melvin spots Nate's car off of Pennsylvania Avenue in the African-American neighborhood where James Brown is performing, and after seeing Ben and his friend inside, deduces that one of them must be Nate's son. After the concert, Melvin abducts Ben, Sylvia, and their friends in a payback to Nate's racket.

Van discovers Trey is in surgery after a car accident. He and Dubbie go see him in Virginia. Trey breaks up with her, and on their way back to Maryland, she suggests they stop in a motel. She gets quite drunk, bursts into tears, and then Van realizes she doesn't really want to be with him.

Nate and his associates from the nightclub are charged and booked with prostitution and racketeering. Before leaving for prison, Nate manages to attend Ben and Sylvia's high school graduation. She is attending Spelman College in Atlanta; he is staying to attend the University of Maryland. As they say goodbye, he steals a kiss, shocking both families

Ben's family is attending a Jewish ceremony as Nate walks out of the synagogue and blows a goodbye kiss to his wife.

Cast Edit

Liberty Heights marked the last appearance of Ralph Tabakin, who appeared in cameo roles in every Levinson movie since his first, Diner. Tabakin died in 2001.

Reception Edit

The film earned positive reviews from critics, as Liberty Heights currently holds an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 49 reviews, with an average rating of 7.3/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "A moving film with moments of humor, Liberty Heights succeeds in capturing the feel of the 1950s with great performances and sensitive direction."[2] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 75 out of 100, based on 31 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[3]

Soundtrack Edit

Two Liberty Heights soundtracks were released on January 4, 2000: one of the score by Andrea Morricone and one of the music appearing in the film.

References Edit

  1. ^ Levinson, Barry (November 14, 1999). "Barry Levinson: Baltimore, My Baltimore". The New York Times.
  2. ^ "Liberty Heights (1999)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
  3. ^ "Liberty Heights Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved March 6, 2018.

External links Edit