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Movie Review : 'Avenue'--voices Of A Neighborhood

June 07, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

"Metropolitan Avenue" is as frank and robust and unafraid and wonderful as the handful of women who are its "stars." They are Polish or Irish or black or Italian. They were born seven blocks from where they now live, or they moved here from as far away as Georgia, but they were all drawn to this Brooklyn neighborhood, at the Metropolitan Avenue exit on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, by a feeling of community. And they have become the heart--and the voice of that community.

You'd swear that voice belonged to Thelma Ritter, if you didn't have Pat McGuinness' face in front of you. In 1973 the City of New York made a mortal enemy of Mrs. McGuinness when it tore down the homes of 90 families, including hers--for a corrugated-box factory. (The archival footage of those protesters, mainly women, many of whom had lived there all their adult lives, is lacerating.) But, to her astonishment, it made McGuinness an activist.

Mildred Johnson was a star player on her basketball team; now, with two children and six grandchildren, she still corrals a basketball with a fearful authority. She, and Mildred Tudy, and the soft-voiced Frances Allen, have all made sure that there's basketball--and much more--for the children of the Cooper Park projects, who will grow up straight and well or answer to these mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers. (Allen's quiet description, of coming to the projects "a broken young woman" and finding in its brick starkness a decent place to raise four children and see them all through college, could move the hardest heart.)

This is producer-director Christine Noschese's first film. She wanted to show the special toughness, the sweetness, the great humor, vitality and endurance of these neighborhood women, whose activism was for the most part forced on them. Small issues, the nuts and bolts of everyday life--whether a police station is closed down, whether a hospital is kept alive. Issues on which the difference in quality of life desperately depends.

What Noschese--who has a great eye and a lovely empathy--and her fellow film makers have made is a warming, lingering, renewing portrait of bedrock America. Enough to win her the prestigious John Grierson Award for new film makers of outstanding talent in social documentaries, joining "Harlan County's" Barbara Kopple and "Rosie the Riveter's" Connie Field, among others. And coming right on the heels of an election, "Metropolitan Avenue" is stirring and encouraging proof of the identity of "the electorate." Politicians, watch out, or you'll have the neighborhood's dynamo, Sally Martino Fisher, on your case; she takes no nonsense and brooks no double talk.

"Metropolitan Avenue" (which opened Friday) plays tonight and the next two weekends at the Monica in Santa Monica. With it is a companion Brooklyn piece, "I Remember Barbra," in which virtually everyone who so much as served Erasmus High School's most vivid graduate an egg cream has a few words about her--and frequently a few hundred. Meticulous, relatively humorless and not terribly insightful, these 23 minutes.


Producer/director Christine Noschese. Editor Stan Salfas. Consulting producer Marc N. Weiss. Camera John Bonanno. Sound Ron Yoshida, Jane Landis, Larry Loewinger. Music Glenn Daum.

Running time: 59 minutes. Times-rated: Family.

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