BATTLE FOR BROOKLYN – DVD review

Everyone knows how this ends. Barclays paid a truckload of money to get the naming rights, boss man Bruce Ratner got his development, and Nets part-owner Jay Z got his courtside seats. The little guys lost. But is that the real story?

In the resolute documentary “Battle for Brooklyn.” filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley follow a seven-year struggle against the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, the one that brought the Nets basketball arena to New York City.

The central figure in this story is resident Daniel Goldstein, one of the last holdouts in the area of the proposed development. Goldstein refuses to be bought out by the heavyweights behind the proposal, the firm of Forest City Ratner, and becomes a reluctant leader of the movement to stop the razing of businesses and apartments in the development’s footprint, to stop what they see as an abuse of power and eminent domain.

Narratively, this is a straight-forward chronology of legal maneuvering, grassroots activism, and backroom influence. Hawley and Galinsky nimbly follow a drawn-out process, on the way exploring some intriguing evidence about monied dealings in the corridors of power, the rubberstamping of the project by city and state officials despite community objection, and the questionable influence of FCR money on local groups that form in support of the project.

And it is clear by the end of the film that the developers will not be able to deliver on the promises they made to the community, like 15,000 jobs and affordable housing for locals. It will be years before the long-term impact of the arena will be known, but the film makes a strong case for the short-term bait-and-switch performed by the developers. Though its clear where the films’ sympathies lie, this thread is informed by the idea that the universe is an unfair place but some things are still worth fighting for.

There are surprises here. I found it intriguing just how close Daniel and the Develop Don’t Destroy group actually got to stopping the development, thanks in part to the 2008 economic meltdown. The film is particularly effective in damning the shadowy process that allows the state to claim the land through eminent domain, by labeling the area “blighted” despite clear evidence to the contrary.

The film could have spent more time with some of the tireless fighters alongside Daniel, like tenacious city councilor Letitia Smith and scrappy activitist Patti Hagan. Some of the corruption accusations aren’t followed up to a satisfying degree. And who exactly is that theatrical, enigmatic figure Reverend Billy, with his Church of Life After Shopping? Give me another movie about this guy.

But in the end, “Battle” works because the focus is equally on resilience and moral courage, and the good that comes from standing firm, even when stepped on by the money-soled boot. Through this lengthy fracas, Goldstein loses his fiancée, his apartment, and visibly ages in the course of the film. Yet because he stays the course, even when everyone else in his building sells out, he also meets fellow activist Shabnam Merchant, the woman who becomes his wife and the mother of his child. A new life is built in the debris of an old one.

Video:
“Battle for Brooklyn” is presented in 1.77:1 aspect ratio. Video quality is grainy and low-tech at times, though this has little impact on the viewing experience.

Audio:
The audio track is Dolby Digital stereo 2.0. Balance between music and dialogue is fine, and spatially adequate.

Extras:
There are no extras on this disc.

Parting thoughts:
Knowing the ending doesn’t mean knowing the story. “Battle for Brooklyn” presents a strong-willed picture of activism in action, and honorable dissent against the powerful. Who ever thought the doctrine of eminent domain could be so involving?

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