Few people know the real-life story behind the upcoming George Clooney-helmed film Suburbicon better than Lynda Myers. After all, it was her parents, William (played by Leith M. Burke in the film) and Daisy (Karimah Westbrook), who moved into the home at 43 Deepgreen Lane in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in August 1957 — setting off a violent racial conflict that lasted months.
The parallels to the recent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, are haunting. An idyllic community explodes in racial violence. A seemingly safe neighborhood is upended when whites start rioting against blacks. But that was the scene in Levittown — a long-forgotten upheaval that occurred almost exactly 60 years ago.
The Myers family, who were African-American, moved into a cookie-cutter suburb populated entirely by white people in the summer of 1957. It’s the true story that inspired Clooney’s Suburbicon, a drama starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore that debuts Sept. 2 at the Venice Film Festival.
“Those in the North love to think they had nothing to do with [racism],” Clooney tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They love to wash their hands and say: ‘Actually, we were the liberals. We were against slavery and pro-civil rights.’ And the truth of the matter was much more complicated. There were a lot of problems, particularly in places like Levittown.”
The movie interweaves two tales — one involving the black family, the other a seemingly normal white family next door that turns out to have its own dark secret — and could not be better timed, coming soon after the Aug. 12 events of Charlottesville and the uproar following President Donald Trump’s apparent defense of the white supremacists who had demonstrated there.
“What’s been so demoralizing is that, I don’t think anyone thought George was prescient in what we were shooting; we all felt we were talking about things that had happened in the past,” says Moore. “But what’s happened recently has been absolutely shocking.”
Levittown was a planned community of some 17,000 almost-identical homes, designed to be the perfect suburb for residents fleeing the expensive, crowded cities. That, at least, was the way it was conceived by William Levitt, who built several such housing projects across the country (the original, best-known Levittown was on Long Island). But he may also have had other things in mind when he envisioned this most homogeneous of environments: to create a haven where white people could live without the presence of minorities, especially African-Americans.
“The reality was, William Levitt was a bigot,” says Clooney. “And William Levitt wouldn’t let blacks move into his homes and was taken to court and ordered to integrate. And rather than integrate, he sold his property.”
The man Clooney describes has some apparent similarities to Trump. Like the president, Levitt was the son of an aggressively entrepreneurial father, writes David Kushner in Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb. The family consisted of “two dapper young brothers, William and Alfred, and their diminutive father, Abe. In contemporary terms, they had the kinetic chemistry and renegade brash of a Silicon Valley start-up. Abe, a self-made immigrant and passionate horticulturist, provided the springboard and the grass seed. Alfred, a self-taught architect (and sci-fi geek), designed the homes. And Bill, a Barnumesque promoter and marketing whiz, built the business and sold the dream.”
William Levitt was “a national icon and titan on the scale of Henry Ford and Walt Disney,” writes Kushner. “Time magazine put him on the cover and ordained Levittown ‘as much an achievement of its cultural moment as Venice or Jerusalem.’ ”
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SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter