Every movie needs a villain — especially the dark, foreboding, noir types like Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn. Based on the 1999 novel, Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog (Norton), a private investigator with Tourette’s syndrome who’s trying to get to the bottom of his mentor, Frank Minna’s (Bruce Willis), murder. He knows that Frank was into some shady New York City business, but only when Lionel starts digging does he realize how far up this scandal goes. It goes all the way to Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), New York’s foremost developer — a man, as he says in the trailer, who is used to using his power. Moses is not a nice guy, as we can see, and perhaps the worst (or best, depending on how you want to look at it) is that Motherless Brooklyn’s Moses Randolph is indeed based on a real person: New York mega-developer Robert Moses.
Interestingly enough, Moses Randolph doesn’t appear in the novel Motherless Brooklyn, but because Norton moved the setting of the film from the present day to the 1950s, he felt there was an opportunity to reveal the dark side of what many see as the golden age of America. “[It’s] the secret history of modern New York, with all of its kind of institutional racism and the devastation of the old city from neighborhoods right up to Penn Station, perpetrated at the hands of an autocratic, almost imperial force, who was intensely antagonistic to everything we think defines American democratic principle,” Norton told Vanity Fair. “That’s not a history most people are actually familiar with.”
Enter Moses Randolph, a stand-in for Robert Moses. According to his New York Times obituary, Moses was responsible for “658 playgrounds… 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges” built under his reign. Moses’ main philosophy eschewed public transit in favor of cars, according to the New York Times, and so, built highways and parkways and roads wherever he could — displacing many, many New York City residents in what were considered to be less affluent areas. Per PBS, Robert Caro wrote in his 1974 biography about Moses, titled The Power Broker, that in order to build all of his highways, “Moses threw out of their homes 250,000 persons — more people than lived in Albany or Chattanooga, or in Spokane, Tacoma, Duluth, Akron, Baton Rouge, Mobile, Nashville or Sacramento. He tore out the hearts of a score of neighborhoods.”
And, according to Caro, Moses made no promises of helping find new homes for the people they displaced. They were just supposed to… figure it out. Controversial though he was, Moses was also instrumental in building some of New York City’s most prominent buildings, including Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center, and the United Nations.
In a 1977 interview with Thirteen, Moses was unapologetic about his methods for developing his city. “Let’s be sensible. How do you visualize the area that we cleared out for the Fordham expansion downtown?” he asked. “They needed the space. Now I ask you,what was that neighborhood? It was a Puerto Rican slum. Do you remember it? Yeah, well I lived there for many years and it was the worst slum in New York. And you want to leave it there?”
Motherless Brooklyn’s trailer shows that Moses Randolph has a similar attitude toward absolute power, but those who've seen the film know his actions get much more deliberate and vicious than anything we know about Robert Moses. He may be inspired by someone real, but Baldwin's Moses Randolph takes the idea of the famed developer to violent extremes.