The Civil Rights movement and its creation of a new film category in Norton’s ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

Lina Estrada
5 min readNov 10, 2019


Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe in Motherless Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair ©

In 2019, we’ve been exposed to political discussions about the number of minority students admitted into gifted programs in New York City, allegations of sexual abuse against Donald Trump, and investigations into the systematic abuse of undocumented immigrant children while in United States custody. No other film understands and portrays the struggle of racial prejudice and corruption present in modern day America, like Motherless Brooklyn. Because the film focuses more on the social justice issues of the 1950s rather than the noir genre itself, Motherless Brooklyn enthralls the audience, from start to finish, with its own idiosyncratic spin on the classic noir genre.

Set in 1950s Brooklyn, Edward Norton’s directorial debut Motherless Brooklyn (2019) is ultimately about a private investigator named Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) who suffers from both Tourette’s syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Throughout the film, Lionel tries to solve the murder of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), the private investigator who rescued him from the abusive hands of the Catholic nuns of the orphanage that he attended.

Along the way, he meets Laura Rose (played by Gugu Mbatha- Raw) an activist who is fighting for the housing rights of African-Americans, a trumpeter (Michael K. Williams) who becomes Lionel’s ally, a desperate and down-trodden engineer named Paul (Willem Dafoe), and our power hungry antagonist Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). And what initially begins as a small investigation into Minna’s murder, eventually becomes a hunt for an even darker truth, which leads Lionel through a tangled web of racial discrimination, political corruption and deceit.

Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn although it mainly detracts from the traditional noir film, has all of the elements working together- acting, cinematography, script and score to create a world that’s very distinctive. It’s like he’s created his own category of film, like he’s created his own universe, yet it works well.

Norton plays Lionel like he plays every character in any other film he’s ever starred in — effortlessly, like he isn’t really acting. His rendition of the tender-hearted and moralistic protagonist gives the film a unique emotional depth quite uncommon in the noir genre. Lionel is also an unusual character, because he is tormented by two very different disorders. However, he refuses to let his illnesses deter him from living a normal life. He instead has learned to use his gifts- a photographic memory and superb investigative skills to help him solve Minna’s murder. Norton’s Lionel is also funny, optimistic and child-like in a world that is dark, unapologetic, and dangerous, which makes him all the more entertaining to watch.

Norton’s co-stars: Gugu Mbatha- Raw, Dafoe, and Baldwin each help bring his vision of racially divided and ominous Brooklyn together. Mbatha- Raw plays Laura’s role, as one of a strong female lead; she is determined and driven and assertive with what she wants. Functioning more as a sidekick to Lionel, her chemistry on set with Norton’s character gives the film an authenticity that is more tangible and rich than that of the seductive femme fatale archetype, typical of a noir film.

Baldwin played his character, Randolph, the power broker and architect of progressively modern New York with malice and conviction. He stomps into conference rooms with furious stares disrupting enjoyable conversations and like a bully-succeeds in intimidating his colleagues. His dark countenance is a reflection of the wicked crimes he committed and omitted from the public’s conscience. And Dafoe portrays his character Paul, as anxious and argumentative, his emotional state adding excitability and a general feeling of suspicion which works well against Lionel’s calm and determined demeanor. His constant vociferating waves a red flag ,claiming that something is wrong.

Cinematographer Dick Pope’s brilliantly executed use of dark lighting, exemplifies the theme of loneliness that is recurrent in the film. The consistent and well thought out use of opaque colored lighting also highlights the dull tone of the film and demonstrates the murky world that Lionel finds himself in. The most visually stunning and metaphorical scene, where Lionel self medicates to calm the symptoms of his Tourette’s syndrome, is done by contrasting opaque yellow lighting against blackness. This effect briefly highlights Lionel’s moment of freedom and escape from his darker and more overbearing nature, while also creating a vibrant atmosphere. Through this lighting sequence, his experience becomes our own.

The score by Daniel Pemberton brings forth Wynton Marsalis’ soft experimental jazz that brings to life the poetic and experimental music of the period. The music also created a space for intimacy, as in the scene when Laura and Lionel dance in the jazz nightclub. The drumming improvisation added tension, magnifying moments of emotional distress,gradually increasing and then waning right before the denouement.

Aside from the antique cars, the set designed by Production Designer Beth Mickle, depicts what New York looked like through the facade of the buildings and the atmosphere created inside of the cafes and jazz clubs. The costumes chosen by Costume Designer Amy Roth brought the set to life- with fedoras and dark vintage suits and classy outfits for women reflecting the social values of the 1950s. Just walking down the street with Lionel, we as the audience feel like we are transported into history- into a culturally rich New York flourishing with a vision of the antique yet strikingly modern world that is the backdrop to the film.

The film’s script, which Norton himself wrote, was rich in dialogue. Lionel embodies the 1950s gumshoe in accent and word choice. The lines that Lionel dishes out when under emotional stress as a result of Tourette’s syndrome, are a perfect example of ingenious script writing. These lines are more comical than offensive in nature like “Kiss her face all night long, Bailey!” which created a dual role for Lionel as both hero and comedic relief.

By creating a more socially conscious framework for his film, a more humane private eye and employing diverse elements to bring a more compelling glimpse of the world that Lionel lives in, Norton has broken away from the standard noir film. But, trust me, you don’t want to let this hinder your expectations. If you’re ready to play detective yourself and be entertained, moved and stimulated then go see Motherless Brooklyn. By the end of the film, I guarantee that you’re going to want to watch it all over again.



Lina Estrada

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” -Anais Nin