“I don’t want to call 2016 a silver lining for my film, because I would trade the relevance of my film for a redo on that in a heartbeat,” says Edward Norton on Motherless Brooklyn and the election of Donald Trump. “But I think that, as we made the film, we realized there were things that were worth underlining within it more than ever.”
Motherless Brooklyn is a project nearly 20 years in the making for Edward Norton. After years of fits and starts, Norton’s second feature as a director debuts in a political landscape that makes it more relevant than it was when it began. Norton, speaking with That Shelf at the Toronto International Film Festival where Motherless Brooklyn premiered in September, says the project was worth the wait. The film speaks to America’s widening social inequalities and politics of the Trump era in which a powerful few exploit their offices and divide communities.
Playing Lionel Essrog, a private investigator with Tourette syndrome, Norton performs triple duty as actor, writer, and director. Motherless Brooklyn adapts Jonathan Lethem’s novel of the same name as Lionel uncovers a case of racial discrimination in the city’s housing market, touring through jazz clubs and political rallies while investigating the death of his mentor and falling in love with an activist named Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). At the centre of the scandal is a Donald Trump-like figure played by (who else?) Alec Baldwin.
Rewinding to 1950
The Trump effect lets contemporary politics infiltrate Norton’s adaptation eerily even though it shifts the 1990s’ setting of Lethem’s novel to 1950s’ Brooklyn. “I told Jonathan that I felt he had written a ’50s bunch of hard-boiled characters, but he’d set them in the modern world,” explains Norton. “I didn’t want it to feel like The Blues Brothers—guys in fedoras in the modern world. He agreed with that 100%. The initial impulse to set it in the past was simply to allow the vernacular in the world and the language that he had written be authentic and organic as opposed to like ironic.”
The 1950s’ setting also enriches Lionel as a character. His spastic tics and verbal outbursts, modulated brilliantly in Norton’s performance through the jazzy rhythms of the era, realize Lionel’s narration in Lethem’s novel. “Putting Lionel in a time when Tourette’s was not named as such, and not so well known, increases his isolation,” says Norton. “In many ways, it increases your capacity to empathize for his loneliness.”
The character is atypical if one compares him to the gumshoes one often finds in hard-boiled noir. But Lionel’s outsider status lets audiences look at America from a remove. “What I find really terrific about the tradition of noir cinema, real noir, is the idea that you can peel back the collective narrative on who we are and show what’s in the shadows,” says Norton. “A lot is going on that is very different than the party line. It’s worth looking at. That’s a fairly vital role for movies to play.”
Chinatown and the Myth of America
Norton looks to a hallmark of noir cinema, Roman Polanski’s LA-set Chinatown, as a precursor for Motherless Brooklyn. “If you take Chinatown, which is a look back to the California of the 1930s made in the ’70s, I don’t think it’s coincidental at all that the movie comes at the end of the Vietnam War as scandals were breaking open and that it was made by a director whose wife was murdered by a bunch of maniacs,” observes Norton, noting the notorious murder of actress Sharon Tate by the Charles Manson clan, which inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… this year.
“Chinatown challenges the ideas of California and of the American dream,” adds Norton. “It says America is built on crime and that the people who commit those crimes rape their daughters. It’s a dark look at the actual nature of the place and the people who express their power.”
Motherless Brooklyn confronts the nation’s racist legacy, similar to Chinatown’s deconstruction of the American Dream. “It’s important to acknowledge that in and under the sunny narrative of PAX Americana and the postwar ’50s, New York City baked racism into its infrastructure,” says Norton. “People fought it, and they tried to stop it, but they didn’t. Working-class and middle-class minority neighbourhoods that weren’t slums were razed to literally build slums. There isn’t a cheap redemptive palliative to that. Lives got damaged, and we’re still dealing with it.”
Lionel and Laura
The racial inequities arise as Lionel’s investigation leads him to Laura and her rallies against discriminatory housing practices. (The study of race is not part of Lethem’s book.) As played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Miss Sloane), Laura’s bravery, strength, and intelligence make the social divides even sharper. “I loved the fact that Laura is not what she seems when you first meet her,” says Mbatha-Raw. “She’s a complex character. Also, I loved that the film deals with the issues of gentrification and housing. But in a way that she’s not a victim. She’s actually active and educated. She’s an activist for her community.”
Much of Motherless Brooklyn hinges on Norton’s performance as he navigates Lionel’s condition and on Mbatha-Raw’s ability to respond empathetically. The cast plays off the spastic beats and rhythms of Lionel’s Tourette’s, delicately finding harmony in the jazzy rhythms.
Mbatha-Raw agrees that finding the space to act and react with Norton was a collaborative effort. “Both of those characters are somewhat misunderstood in their different worlds,” observes Mbatha-Raw.
“It comes down to trust,” she says. “I love being able to do it one way and then another. As an actor, that’s where you’re really flexing your muscles. You can be in the sandpit, just playing and stretching it as far as it can go.”
Past and Present
Norton adds that it was important to include characters like Laura, who reflect contemporary sensibilities to avoid romanticism. “There’s a writer in the New York Times, Wesley Morris. He wrote a piece recently asking how long will Hollywood’s romance with the racial reconciliation fantasy last. And I related to that,” says Norton. “He said we should stop giving [audiences] horseshit revisionist redemptive stories that suggest that in many ways, even when things were bad, they really weren’t that bad.”
The film draws upon an amalgam of characters, like city activists Hortense Gabel and Jane Jacobs, who create Laura’s mentor Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones). For Alec Baldwin’s Trump bureaucratic Moses Randolph, Norton’s inspiration is his own grandfather: urban planner and activist James Rouse. “My grandfather was a huge inspiration,” says Norton. “He was what Laura talks about in the film. A person who believed that we were supposed to raising up people who had the least and that society wasn’t stable if the bottom was dropping out. He was very much the antithesis of the Alec Baldwin character.”
Although the unmistakable shadow of Trump hangs atop the stylish and jazzy noir, Norton’s plan was to keep Motherless Brooklyn in the past and present. “I had moments when Obama was inaugurated for the second term where I wondered if a lot of what the story was about was actually heading further into the rearview mirror,” observes Norton. But the director admits that the ironic benefit of timing helped him hone and tighten the material. “Things are taking place that we cannot be complacent about,” says Norton. And with impeachment proceedings in full swing as Motherless Brooklyn heads into theatres, timing is again on Norton’s side.
Motherless Brooklyn opens in theatres on November 1st.