Motherless Brooklyn, a radical retro transformation of Jonathan Lethem’s book of the same name, refits the bright noir of the movie Chinatown into 1950s New York City. Edward Norton, who wrote and directed this adaptation, also stars as its central figure — Lionel Essrog or simply Brooklyn, a detective with Tourette syndrome and a photographic memory.
The film is a lot. Its success for you will depend on your tolerance for Norton’s performance as Brooklyn, who explodes with spontaneous verbal tics while on a labyrinthine case nodding (often blatantly, sometimes brilliantly) to dozens of classic detective tropes.
I saw it a week ago and I’m still not sure whether I loved it or detested it. It’s a movie full of wonderful concepts, fascinating history and a few failed ideas.
But if you’ve ever listened to our podcast — or spent more than five minutes on this website — then I’m pretty sure you’ll find something to admire in Motherless Brooklyn.
The list below contains no big spoilers pertaining to the film’s plot, but prepare to recognize the following historical figures and concepts. In fact you might like to listen to a podcast or two before or after you view the film. Some listening suggestions are below:
THE POWER BROKER
In many ways Motherless Brooklyn is as much an adaptation of The Power Broker as it is Lethem’s detective novel. (There are at least three character monologues that feel like information dumps from the book.)
The central antagonist Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) stands in for Robert Moses, the unelected city official who amassed great power during the 1940s and 50s, shaping the city to his whims. By the ’50s, Moses has collected several job titles, lording over weak mayors and determining the city’s fate — with little consideration for individual community needs.
TRIBOROUGH BRIDGE AND TUNNEL AUTHORITY
In Motherless Brooklyn, Moses’ instrument for change is actually called the Borough Authority, but its headquarters are located in the same place as Moses’ — Randall’s Island. Originally commissioned by the state to construct the Triborough Bridge, the authority’s merged with other city agencies under Moses.
THE GREAT MIGRATION
Thousands of African-Americans moved out of the South in the first half of the 20th century — escaping the dominance of Jim Crow laws — and many came to New York City, only to find a familiar tenor of discrimination here. By the 1940s, housing shortages in black communities like Harlem vexed African-Americans who were unable to rent from many landlords in mostly white neighborhoods.
The process by which banks and insurance companies, with de facto approval by the city, denied loans and mortgages to residents in predominantly minority neighborhoods, leading to the deterioration of those neighborhoods, leading them to be labeled ‘slums’. When then led to….
An urban renewal strategy popular in the mid-20th century — Robert Moses was its maestro — involving the complete demolition of neighborhoods labeled slums and relocating its displaced residents to public housing in far off (less valuable) quadrants of the city. In many cases, those neighborhoods were not ‘slums’ at all; that is, they were thriving places that just happened to be homes to black, Hispanic or Jewish residents.
A neighborhood in the South Bronx, largely populated with working class Jewish residents, decimated by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway in the 1940s and 50s. From The Power Broker: “The one mile of the Cross-Bronx Expressway through East Tremont was completed in 1960. By 1965, the community’s “very good, solid housing stock,” the apartments that had been so precious to the people who had lived in them, were ravaged hulks.
Cherry Jones plays Gabby Horowitz, a community activist very much in the mold of Greenwich Village crusader Jane Jacobs. There’s even an interesting nod to her work in Washington Square and a notable rally which took place there in 1958.
Harlem’s glorious jazz-club tradition is vividly illustrated in one set piece — a smoky club called the King Rooster. The film used the actual St. Nick’s Pub (St. Nicholas Avenue at West 149th Street) which dated back to the 1930s. Sadly the club burned down in 2018 in a tragic blaze which killed a firefighter.
THE ORIGINAL PENNSYLVANIA STATION
By the 1950s, the first Pennsylvania Station — above ground, designed by McKim, Meade and White — was just a few years away from demolition. It was deteriorating and not very clean by then, but Norton thankfully recreates a fantasy, photo-perfect version of Penn Station. It’s genuinely breathtaking.
Robert Moses was a champion swimmer and even let his hobby influence early policy, constructing ten massive swimming pools during the 1930s with Work Progress Administration funding. Quoting Caro: “Moses gave each of his pools … his personal attention. Under his prodding, his architects adorned them with masterful little touches; over the entrance which divided men from women as they entered the bathhouse at the Corona Pool complex sat a stork wearing an expression that made him look as if he were puzzling over the physical differences in the creatures he had brought into the world.”
At top: Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton