Fight Club and American X are a couple of examples of unforgettable movies that instantly make you think of the actor, Edward Norton. He is critically acclaimed for his roles in many major motion pictures like Red Dragon, Kingdom of Heaven, The Incredible Hulk, and The Bourne Legacy.
However, you may not know that in addition to being an actor, Edward Norton is a film director, writer, producer, and activist. His latest film “Motherless Brooklyn,” premiering in theaters on November 1st, showcases his versatile skills as an actor and filmmaker.
I had the chance to have a sneak peek of the film and chat with Edward before the film’s release, as a strategist focused on community development, I appreciated learning the historical intimacies and powerful collaborations that went into shaping this film.
The timing of “Motherless Brooklyn” impeccably highlights the intense political climate and power dynamics we currently face across the nation and locally. Set in Brooklyn in the 1950s, the film draws on the themes of gentrification, community displacement, and housing discrimination which we are viscerally experiencing in Washington DC, like many metropolitan cities throughout the country.
“Motherless Brooklyn” follows Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, as he ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Edward Norton’s phenomenal role as Detective Lionel Essrog gives a voice to the voiceless. Armed only with a few clues and the engine of his obsessive mind, Lionel unravels closely-guarded secrets that hold the fate of the whole city in the balance. In a mystery that carries him from gin-soaked jazz clubs in Harlem to the hard-edged slums of Brooklyn and, finally, into the gilded halls of New York’s power brokers, Lionel contends with thugs, corruption and the most dangerous man in the city to honor his friend and save the woman who might be his own salvation.
Informer: How did you get Robert F. Smith involved in this film as an Executive Producer?
Norton: Obviously, Robert is a great CEO. He is the chair of the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, chair of Carnegie Hall, he is just an incredible human being. Individually and through Fund II Foundation he is doing rather amazing things. His commitment to me in making sure this story gets out has just been incredible. He and I became friends through business and have had many points of mutual friendship and common alignment over the years. When I shared this with him he responded very strongly and became a supporter.
Informer: In the film, Moses Randolph’s (Alec Baldwin) character is a master builder who embodies corruption, systemic racism, and housing discrimination. His character wasn’t in the original novel, why did you add him and what does his character represent?
Norton: The history of the things that have been done is in many ways the shadow narrative in the American story under the Pax Americana. As Langston Hughes says of America, “let it be the dream it used to be.” The tension in American life is the delta between who we are and who we say we are. That’s the great part of noir films, they peel back the corner on the shadow narrative and send someone, in this case, the detective, who stands for all of us, into that shadow narrative. And with them, we weave our way through the shadow narrative and walk away with not only a sense of the dark things that are going on that are antagonistic to that idealistic narrative, but in a lot of ways that pose the question, how much more are we going to tolerate? At what point are we going to say, we are not taking this anymore? Even in the title “Motherless Brooklyn” I like that there’s this idea that there are these consequences for not looking out for each other and for not looking out for our communities.
Informer: What does a character like Moses Randolph represent in today’s political climate?
Norton: A lot of what happened in much of America was modeled on what happened in New York. You had this incredibly dark history of an autocratic bully who was never elected and yet held total authority and control in New York City for nearly half of the century. He literally baked his racism into the infrastructure of New York, in ways we still can’t fix. Things named in the film, like purposefully setting overpasses too low for public buses to get to the new beaches and parks so that minorities would not be able to access those new beaches and parks. Down to them declaring minority neighborhoods slums, that were not slums, so that federal money could be used to clear them and actual slums could be built. Literally creating institutionalized poverty traps, that we still can’t really ever fix. These weren’t things that happened by osmosis they happened with intent. It’s incredible that this goes unacknowledged. It’s a part of the history of New York City that we don’t tell.
In this moment where we have a national crisis, in terms of a resurgent affection for brutal bullying forms of power. This form of heroism is getting unapologetically applied to a bullying exclusionary form of leadership. The problem with living in history is it’s hard to comment on the dimensions of what’s making something happen at the moment you’re living in it. But, sometimes by looking back and determining this is not something new, with more accuracy, you can distill certain truths. It is a mistake to think that this is new.
Informer: I’m wondering if there is a connection between the spirit of idealism in the characters Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) or Paul (Willem Dafoe) and your grandfather James Rousse, founder of Columbia Maryland?
Norton: Yes. Certain things Paul said are things my grandfather said in speeches. He would say, “to serve people, you have to love people.” He was a true humanitarian, he would say things like, “cities are gardens for growing better people.” And he would say, “If we don’t address inclusion of everyone and the bottom drops out, what will the experience be like for the rest of us?” He was constantly hammering on the idea that you had to revitalize cities themselves and people leaving them is not the solution.
He founded Enterprise Community Partners, and it became one of the largest developers of affordable housing in America outside of the US Government. It got started because of an experience he had talking to two women at Jubilee Housing in Washington DC. These women came to see him and said, “we want to take our building back, how do we do it?” He told them they can’t because of particular barriers. They responded by telling him he was perpetuating the lie. That bothered him. One night he awoke out of his sleep and realized they were right, he was wrong. He admitted, “I’m accepting a pernicious reality as though it can’t be solved and Jubilee Housing became the seed of what became Enterprise Foundation. Because of that experience, he came to believe that people had to fight for their own communities. Supporting people’s capacity to fight for their own people is the most important thing. That’s why Enterprise Foundation’s core methodology is still community-based capacity building. Now it’s a network of nearly 10,000 community-based organizations who are Enterprise partners that it brings capacity too.
That’s why I like Laura and Paul in the film they are bringing capacity to the community. I like the idea that my character isn’t the hero, he is, in fact, passive, he is moving for a reason that does not have to do with being a crusader. It is ultimately the example of Paul and Laura, that moves him to make a decision. He is like all of us, we may not have tourettes necessarily, but we have the sensation that our own daily struggle is consuming, and in some ways need to grow up and find the bandwidth to contribute. That is the proxy journey that he goes through. People like Laura and Paul who are saying the risk you take in caring is you put yourself on the line, and struggle against very big forces that feel like they can’t be overcome.
Informer: At the end of the film, Lionel Essrog says, there comes a time when you have to get off your ass and choose a side. What side do you hope people walk away on after this film?
Norton: The side of empathy. You can have empathy for people on an individual level. What’s great about Lionel as a character is when you meet him in the first few moments of the film you get to be inside his head. That’s Jonathan Lethem’s brilliant trick in the book, you get immediate intimacy with this person inside this very isolating condition. But you empathize with him immediately. Once you create this empathy you will journey with this character and go. The irony is that you are empathetic toward him, but he has got to find empathy for other people who also are not seen.
I didn’t want Lionel to retreat into apathy. It’s more exciting to me, that in the end, he stands with Laura and Paul. If he wants the right to sit next to Laura, in the end, he has to act. In the same way he has to put on his boss hat and jacket, he has to grow up and become a better person.