Brownsville Black and White

A Night Time Films production. Produced by Richard Broadman. Executive producer, Laurann Black.

Directed, written, edited by Richard Broadman. Camera (color/B&W;, 16mm), Nick Doob, Ted Reed; additional editing, Noel Buckner; music, Frank Wilkins; sound designers, Broadman, Reed; director of research, Wendell Pritchett; principal content adviser, Jerald Podair. Reviewed at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 21, 2001. Running time: 88 MIN.

Charting how politics and economics first narrowed, then widened the gap between two communities — the Jewish and the African-American residents of a mixed Brooklyn neighborhood — “Brownsville Black and White” provides a potent, microcosmic lesson in U.S. race relations over the last half-century. Final feature for vet documentarian Richard Broadman was completed by associates after his abrupt demise at age 52 last year, and results are a credit to everyone involved. Healthy shelf-life among pubcasters and educational programmers is signaled.

Rich array of archival footage sets up Brownsville’s melting-pot character before and during WWII: It was a working-poor district where blacks, Italians and Jews staked out their own terrain, defended by ethnocentric juvenile gangs that sound pretty tame by today’s standards. The area became notorious as home to the major-league gangsters of Murder Inc., but their mayhem took place elsewhere, and old-timers now recall a lively but safe ‘hood where “a girl could walk home from the subway at 3 a.m.” unmolested.

Nonetheless, social interactions remained fairly segregated until during the war, when the city barred teenagers from public athletic facilities. Some enterprising Jewish kids circumvented this rule by founding a Brownsville Boys Club chapter. Raised by progressive lefty parents, they had no objection when black teens — also dying for sporting outlets — asked to join up. This modest development commenced a notable erosion of ethnic divides, as the club bred top-rank local athletic teams whose United Nations makeup shocked monoethnic competitors.

After war’s end, however, G.I. Bill benefits triggered a gradual exodus of Italians and Jews to the suburbs — economic progress that left Brownsville’s black citizens behind. Later urban renewal trends, especially the construction of huge low-income housing projects, further ghettoized the area.

Pic’s later half focuses on the “School War,” a mid-’60s struggle that left hard-won inter-community ties severed. The combination of misguided city policies, a teachers union strike and Black Power Movement-fueled anger pitted Brownsville’s (mostly Jewish) educators against its (now mostly black and Latino) residents. Sadly, events created a bitter rift between the extant community and those onetime neighbors who’d continued job-commuting to Brownsville out of earnest liberal idealism.

Short epilogue shows principal interviewees still nostalgic for the Brownsville of yore, even as their (separate) annual reunions revert to even hoarier race/turf divisions.

Standard PBS-style surface is no impediment, as docu engrossingly balances individual reminiscences against larger issues. Results provide an uplifting view of grassroots coalition-building — then a poignantly downbeat look at how that good work can be unraveled in just one generation’s span.

Tech contribs are smooth; mediocre score of old-timey piano tinkling is package’s only weak design aspect.

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