Liberty Heights
House Church Central Goes to the Movies

Warner Brothers, Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures. Produced by Barry Levinson and Paula Weinstein. Written and directed by Barry Levinson.

This is the fourth of Levinson's "Baltimore" films, documenting the advent of integration laws in 1954 Baltimore, Maryland. In short, the kids have a far easier time adjusting to integration than do the parents--but this film has just as much to say about the integration of Jews and Gentiles (frequently called "the other kind" in this movie). At the center is a Jewish family with a high level of ceremonial participation (there are many scenes of the family in the synagogue) despite the irony of the father's (Joe Mantegna) vocation, involving a numbers racket, a burlesque theater, and income tax evasion.

Liberty Heights takes the time to develop its characters well. Even the racketeers are drawn sympathetically as they deal with a fluke in their game that forces them to deal with a black drug dealer, brilliantly played by Orlando Jones. The romantic interests of the two sons both involve social taboos, and contribute greatly to the movie's payoff. The older son, Ben (Adrien Brody), falls for a rich girl of exceptional beauty--and exceptional dysfunctions--(Carolyn Murphy), while the younger son, Van (Ben Foster) becomes involved with Sylvia, a black girl (Rebekah Johnson). It is this latter relationship, because it is so respectful and genuine, that is particularly worthy of comment. Van develops an interest in black music and comedy from Sylvia, and learns to appreciate that culture.

This film has value within the church on several levels. For one thing, it speaks volumes about the important subject of learning to enjoy and appreciate other cultures. But it's main value may be the tension between the father's faith and vocation. Can one be a good Jew by being faithful in matters of ceremony, yet pick an illegal occupation? Surely, this question would have been the same had the family's religion had been Christianity.

The reciting of Psalm 23 every morning in public school has an interesting place, as it is through psalm that Van and Sylvia become acquainted. When I went to school in the 1950s, it was the Lord's Prayer--but I suppose the large Jewish population made the substitution necessary. Were this the first century, these students--both Jews and Christians--would be reciting the shema. Significantly, the attempts at exegeting the psalm by the students is laughable--raising good questions about whether the daily recitation of any religious material without interpretation and explanation is of any value at all. So the film makes a good point: such recitations belong in the family--not in the public school where they become mere empty words.

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