Though the spotlight isn’t always directly on them—women are often the catalysts who propel some of Hollywood’s most enticing stories forward. Based on Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel of the same name, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s latest feature, Motherless Brooklyn, is a compelling crime drama with a film noir tone. After falling in love with the story and its characters, actor/director Edward Norton decided to put his own twist on Lethem’s gritty Brooklyn.
Moving the story from 1999—Norton sets his tale in the 1950s. The actor/director stars as Lionel “Brooklyn” Essrog, a private investigator struggling with Tourette syndrome who is taken under the wing of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). However, when Minna is murdered it’s up to Lionel to piece together what happened. His quest to uncover the truth leads him to ruthless New York City planner, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and a Harlem lawyer/activist Laura Rose (Mbatha-Raw).
Ahead of the film’s release STYLECASTER sat down to chat with Mbatha-Raw about diving into this compelling story, working with this incredible cast that also includes Leslie Mann, Willem Dafoe, Michael K. Williams, and Bobby Cannavale–and why her character just might hold the key to unpacking this mystery.
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Just lounging on a Piano trying to make Yellow look Noir!!💋#bts @lincolncenter @thenyff for @motherlessbklyn 🎺 Dream celebration with #jazz and friends thank you @wyntonmarsalis and @jazzdotorg for the magical performance and @vanityfair for the party! #Newyorkcity forever our Muse ❤️ Dress @miumiu @leithclark @leightonjewels hair @mattshair makeup @nickbarose 😘
“Edward Norton,” Mbatha-Raw said firmly when asked what compelled her to say yes to Motherless Brooklyn. “He’s such an incredibly talented actor and so respected amongst his peers. When I found out that he was directing, I knew it was going to be a quality project. I was intrigued–film noir is a genre that we don’t see made very often, and I’d never done anything in the detective genre before. I’d never done anything in the ’50s before. So, for me, it had all of these new challenges. I also love the fact that it’s set in New York because I just think it’s such an iconic city. I knew it was going to be an acting workout.”
Another surprise for the Beyond the Lights actress was discovering that Norton had pulled the story back in time four decades. “I hadn’t read the book,” she revealed. “So my first experience with Motherless Brooklyn was the screenplay. When I met Edward, I just assumed that the book was set in the ’50s too, and he sort of laughed and said, ‘Well, don’t read the book if you’re looking to research your character, because she’s not in it.’ It was only afterward when I went back and really appreciated the gravity of the adaptation that he had done. It meant that I could have a bit of creative license for my character.”
Laura Rose is almost an anomaly in cinema. A Black woman living in Harlem prior to the Civil Rights movement with a law degree who is using her voice for activism is profoundly important. “I didn’t really base her off of one particular person,” Mbatha-Raw revealed. “She defies the stereotype of how often women are portrayed in movies in the ’50s. We’re so familiar with the ’50s housewife or the femme fatale if you like the noir genre. I loved the fact that Laura has a law degree. Even though she grew up in Harlem– she’s not the jazz club singer that you might see in the cliché. She’s educated–she’s a woman of purpose. She’s on a mission to stand up for her community. Both Lionel and Laura deal with being seen for less than who they are.”
A major part of Motherless Brooklyn for Mbatha-Raw was understanding that many major American cities were built so that communities of color were pushed to the outskirts. City planners were meticulous with their placement of highways. They would also impend public transit travel into certain areas. “I wasn’t aware,” Mbatha-Raw explained. “It was a very educational process for me. Edward pointed me towards The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, this epic book, which I have to confess, I didn’t read cover to cover. However, understanding the role of Robert Moses in the creation of present-day New York. Bridges were built too low for buses to go under them so that working-class people and predominantly minorities were prevented from getting to the beaches. Those insidious practical restrictions on the page aren’t just about numbers. In reality, it really prevents people of color and minorities from enjoying all of the privileges of the city. That was really fascinating. Alec Baldwin is so ferocious and brilliant as this character. I just thought it really spotlighted abuse of power in cities and how that still operates today on the contemporary resonances. It was very illuminating.”
Though the history of Ne York was intriguing, to say the least, Mbatha-Raw also learned so much about herself from playing Laura. “Having the chance to explore the music of the period was illuminating,” she reflected. “I really related to Laura’s tenacity, as someone who is often underestimated in life. I could relate to living through different worlds. It’s about working with people that I respect, being able to do genres and different styles that stretch me. I think that’s the most important thing. I think as long as you stay curious and you’re able to feel like, ‘I’m continuing to learn and grow.’ That’s the best you can hope for.”
Motherless Brooklyn debuts in theaters November 1, 2019.