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March 10, 2000

Some days I feel like a cog in someone else's money machine. Lately I've had my head down, driving toward the finish line. I've been so focused on the Big Project that the rest of the world has had to get along without my unique contribution. Now that the pace has slowed down some, I can reclaim some of my life. So I took myself to a movie tonight.

I'm never sure where to sit when I walk into an almost empty theater by myself. I like to stay until the end titles are finished, so I don't automatically take an aisle seat. But I'm a bit claustrophobic and tend to fold myself into a pretzel when anyone sits next to me. It hardly mattered tonight, though, since by the time the movie started I had people on all sides.

So why would someone believe it was okay to light up a joint in a cozy 250-seat movie theater? Did they think no one would notice? Or did they just think no one would care? I know it wasn't the couple in front of me, because they kept looking around to see where it was coming from. (When they glanced at me, I opened my hands to make sure they could see I had nothing to hide.) And it couldn't have been the four women behind me, because they jabbered without taking time to inhale the entire two hours.

The movie was Liberty Heights, Barry Levinson's episodic tale about members of a Jewish family coping with religious, racial and class prejudice in Baltimore in the mid fifties. It's beautifully acted by Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, and a host of mostly unknown, mostly young actors who create some memorable characters. Levinson gives us a vision of life in 1954 that belies the common perception of this period in history as bland. His characters take bold steps to expand their own worlds and in doing so become part of the movement that will recreate society.

This is a sweet movie that never becomes mawkish. It's also a movie about serious issues that is very funny. Levinson treats all his characters with respect, and as a result all are likeable, even the drug dealers and racketeers. And as always in a Levinson film, the sense of time and place rings true. The unhurried pace allows us time to get to know these people and care what happens to them. It's the kind of movie where I never find myself checking my watch or squirming in my seat. (Or maybe that was just the weed.)

When I left the theater a light rain had started. As I drove home through the wet streets, the weekly Friday night fifties show was on the local public radio station. They play mostly early rhythm and blues on this program, and it immediately brought the movie back to me. The character played by Ben Foster is a sixteen-year-old Frank Sinatra fan experiencing his first year of integrated education. He becomes fascinated with an African-American girl in his class (Rebekah Johnson). They get to know each other, behind their parents' backs. She plays her Ray Charles and Redd Foxx records for him, and it's a revelation to him, this music and culture he never knew existed.

This is something I've written about before, how music can bring people together and help them understand things about each other that can't be communicated in other ways. A multicultural society is strengthened if it opens itself to the best each person and each group has to offer. Life is so rich once we learn not to exclude those who aren't exactly like ourselves.

One of the things I like best about Liberty Heights is that it celebrates diversity, in a time when diversity was just being discovered. I don't mean that different sectors of society didn't know that others existed before then, or even that they didn't interact. I mean that this was the a time when people of different races and religions began to accept and embrace each other. School desegregation was one of the ways we learned that we weren't alone in this world, that (as Ben Foster's character says in wonder) "not everyone was a Jew."

Stereotypes can only be broken down when we see our neighbors as individuals, listen to their music and hear what they're saying. It helps us care about them enough to learn about their lives. Differences become less mysterious, and fears fade. And what is prejudice and bigotry but a manifestation of fear?

I really believe you have to dream the world the way you want it, and then you have to live the dream. That's the only way to make it real. If everyone accepts a reality that's less than the ideal, then you never get closer to that ideal. I know I can't change society and make the world conform to my dream, but I also know that one person at a time can take a small corner of the world a step or two in the right direction.

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