Thursday, January 19, 2012

Battle For Brooklyn 

Not In Our House!  Brooklyn Couple Clipped By Invading Goliath
(In Their House)

Shabnam Merchant and Daniel Goldstein, the couple at the center of an epic battle to save theirs and other homes from destruction in Brooklyn in the documentary "Battle For Brooklyn". 
Michael Galinksy  


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, January 19, 2012

This fall, when the Brooklyn Nets basketball team plays at the Barclays Center arena in downtown Brooklyn on Atlantic Avenue, few people sitting courtside or anywhere else in the arena will likely remember the fight a Brooklyn couple made over several years to prevent their home and many others in the "footprint" of the Barclays Center from being razed via eminent domain.

Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley's intimate, explosive documentary "Battle For Brooklyn" chronicles the David-vs.-Goliath fight that the couple, Daniel Goldstein and Shabnam Merchant, waged against what they'd call the "evil empire" of Forest City Ratner (FCR).  FCR is billionaire businessman real estate developer Bruce Ratner's company, which promised housing, jobs and additional upgrades to the Prospect Heights-Fort Greene neighborhood with its basketball arena plan to lure the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn.  To build the arena they'd have to eliminate hundreds of residents, buying out owners who'd lived there for generations.

"Battle For Brooklyn", which screens twice this evening at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and has been making its way across the U.S. over the last few months, takes place over eight years.  During that time Mr. Goldstein finds the new love of his life in Ms. Merchant, marries, and a child will be born.  Yet these pivotal life moments are almost afterthoughts in Mr. Galinsky's and Ms. Hawley's documentary, which intensely chronicles the politics of eminent domain -- the taking of private property for public use as deemed necessary by the government -- as well as the politics of division in a diverse community.

The documentary is a clash between the scripted (politicians, Mr. Ratner, and those he has apparently bought off with promises of jobs and money) and the unscripted (the evolution and political growth of residents and of the activist in Mr. Goldstein, who becomes a spokesman for the cause of preserving, not desecrating the Brooklyn neighborhood.)  A few hardy, dedicated politicians interested in the people, like Brooklyn councilwoman Letitia James, rallies to the cause, as do the Brooklyn-born and raised actors Rosie Perez and John Turturro.  Jay-Z, the Brooklyn-born rapper, producer, megastar, and part-owner of the Nets, supports the arena plan.

In some ways "Battle For Brooklyn" resembles Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" but even more so his "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" in its look at a relentless couple who fearlessly keeps fighting City Hall and its powerful allies at the expense of a social life and time to breathe, as the couple awakens a community and galvanizes a fight against a corporate and government structure that puts political roadblocks and legal linguistic contrivances in front of the resident taxpayers at every turn. 

Unyielding in its fervor and outrage, and personified by the divided working-class  community members and long-time small businesses facing closure, "Battle For Brooklyn" is undeniably a piece of advocacy, even if unintended.  The filmmakers let the passion of its people do the talking however, as well as those supporting the creation of jobs with FCR's Atlantic Yards project.  But is the jobs promise a credible one?  (There's "gerrymandering" of people's property, claims one individual.) 

One of the film's most interesting moments features a meeting between Reverend Herbert Daughtry of Brooklyn's House Of The Lord Church, and Mr. Goldstein.  Reverend Daughtry, an activist, favors the FCR development.  Their meeting is brief, but you feel the tension in its serenity.  Mr. Galinsky and Ms. Hawley pack as much drama into this powder-keg of a film as one documentary can possibly handle, raising the urgent stakes of the many lives involved and affected by FCR, which has its own share of trials and tribulations along the way. 

The filmmakers' wide-ranging swath of dynamics here -- family, unity, disharmony, trickery, tradition, culture clash -- brings forth a rich, absorbing story of competing interests and expedient loyalties.  "Battle For Brooklyn" gives you a sense of the claustrophobia of emotions for Mr. Goldstein and Ms. Merchant -- a resolute and fiercely committed couple living on Pacific Street in the "footprint" -- between fighting a Goliath and relenting and having time for each other, and one scene glimpses that private struggle in a poignant way.

Brooklyn has seen a professional sports team like its baseball Brooklyn Dodgers come and go.  Ebbets Field, the former home of those Dodger "Bums", still stands today more than 50 years later, less than a mile and a half from 636 Pacific Street near Atlantic Avenue, though ironically, as a massive housing complex.

"Battle For Brooklyn" shows plainly that a tree doesn't grow in Brooklyn; rather, a developer destroys its roots.

"Battle For Brooklyn" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  The film contains some harsh and foul language.  The film's running time is one hour and 33 minutes.

*Correction: an earlier edition of this review had incorrectly named one of the film's co-directors as Sue Hawley.  The correct name is Suki Hawley.

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