Warning: This post is full of spoilers. Thankfully, Brick Mansions isn’t the kind of movie you watch for the plot.
Brick Mansions is the American remake of the French film District B13 (not to be confused with District 9, the Academy Award-nominated South African film from 2009). Brick Mansions tells the story of a housing project in 2018 Detroit – a project so dangerous the city literally built a 40-foot wall around it, with police checkpoints at all entrances and exits. David Belle plays Lino, a resident of the projects who uses his parkour skills to steal drugs from the dealers and then destroy them. The plot really takes off when cop Damien (played by Paul Walker in one of his final roles) is called in to retrieve a neutron bomb stolen by the project kingpin, Tremaine. In typical action movie fashion, Damien is forced to work with Lino to infiltrate the housing project. Also in typical action movie fashion, the pair discovers that all is not as it seems, and the military police controlling the entrance checkpoints are under the thumb of the drug lords. You could probably guess the rest of the plot from here.
What makes Brick Mansions noteworthy, if not for the plot, the acting, or the subject matter? As a historian of public housing, I found myself fascinated by the ways in which the movie complicates the mainstream view of public housing residents. Some are subtle, some are completely graceless, but all are unique from the movies I’ve seen set in housing projects.
An early action sequence of Lino running, jumping, and otherwise parkour-ing his escape from a drug dealer follows him through several of the project housing units. In one, an Asian family sits around a table eating a meal. Another unit contains a middle-aged black couple reading books in bed. My favorite shows three young boys of color watching television when Lino runs through the room, to which they react with only, “hey Lino.” While the drug dealers and cronies are the majority of residents shown on screen, there is a clear diversity in the other residents who are just living their lives in the projects. This is a population typically ignored in popular narratives about public housing, especially in stories about drugs and violence in projects. In the academic sphere, stories of community activism and tenant advocacy have increased in number since Herbert Gans and Carol Stack pioneered underclass studies in the 1960s-70s. This academic work reflects a bottom-up view of history, emphasizing the role public housing residents played in shaping their housing developments through advocacy and activism efforts.
That is not to say that Brick Mansions does the same. Unlike modern academic work, which focuses on resident agency, the film portrays housing residents as victims acted upon by a corrupt system. Drug kingpin Tremaine (played by RZA of the Wu Tang Clan), in his role as the main bad guy of the film, delivers several lines directly addressing this point of view. See for yourself:
Upon meeting Damien: “Wow, a real live cop. Haven’t seen one of those around here in years. I believe the police station closed around the same time as the school, the hospital, and all them other things the government thought we didn’t need around here.”
“How much are those people downtown worth? Because around here, we don’t seem to be worth shit.”
And one of my favorites, excusing his role as the drug supplier for the project: “I didn’t cause this reality. I just help them ease the pain.”
Lino gets in on the action, too, when he questions Damien’s motives: “The law never protected this place before. Why would it start now?”
Historians of public housing typically make conscious efforts to allow resident voices to shine through. This is something that Brick Mansions does surprisingly well, primarily through Tremaine. Still, this wouldn’t be a Hollywood action movie without a white savior, a role Damien clearly fills. He also serves as the voice of the white middle-class liberals who might be watching this movie. Explaining his role in the plot, Damien says:
I’m here to find Tremaine. I’m here to find him before a weapon he hijacked kills everybody inside of Brick Mansions. Probably didn’t occur to you that somebody on the outside could actually give a shit about what happens in here, now did it? Not everybody out there is an asshole, just like not everybody in here is a junkie or a thief.
“Don’t worry” the film seems to be saying to these viewers, “we know you care about public housing residents, too.”
As it turns out, Tremaine has decided to fire the neutron bomb into downtown Detroit in revenge for the mistreatment of Brick Mansions. The mayor is a step ahead, though, and has rigged the bomb to go off within the project itself. Why do this? Because the mayor has plans to develop the land upon which Brick Mansions sits into an eco-friendly mixed-use development, a picture of new urbanism. Of course, this may remind you of the 1987 hit Robocop, another film in which a corrupt government uses devious means to clear slums out of Detroit. I am not sure if this this an homage, or just a lazy adaptation inserted when changing the setting from Paris slums to the United States for the re-make. Which brings me to another question I don’t have an answer for – why is it that Detroit is so often used as the go-to symbol of all things urban, poor, and dysfunctional in American films?
But back to our film, where our heroes have just discovered the real bad guys: the twin evils of yuppie new urbanism, with its eco-friendly plans for walkable gentrified neighborhoods, and neoliberalism, the change since the 1980s to market-driven development over public good. The mayor’s true intentions are foreshadowed in the opening scene, as he describes his plan to develop “twenty acres of the most valuable property that this city owns.” “Mr. Mayor,” one of the men at the table responds, “this land is currently the Brick Mansions housing projects. In order for this to go up, that has to come down.” Another man, incidentally the only person of color at the table, adds, “Yes. What future do you envision for the people currently living there?” Don’t worry, the Mayor tells them: “As your mayor, I can assure you that all the people of this fine city will be taken care of.” Of course this is followed by the clinking of champagne flutes, just to drive home the wealth disparity between the government/developers and the people of Brick.
White savior Damien comes back in to save the day, discovering just in time that the code sent him to disarm the bomb will really set it off. Oh, and his father wasn’t killed by Tremaine, but by the corrupt cops. Tremaine is further vindicated when he helps Lino and Damien bring the bomb to the mayor’s office, delivering a healthy dose of justice porn with the denouement. To drive home the point that the mayor doesn’t care about public housing residents, he delivers this beauty of a speech to Damien: “I have to make the tough decisions for this city and I sent this bomb in there to get rid of its biggest problem. Come on. You know it. They’re no better than animals.” Tremaine gets back in on the action: “Animals? Who’s animals? Men struggling to survive? Or men who would destroy a whole community of underprivileged women and children?” Didn’t get the point yet? They’ll rehash it for you:
Mayor: As mayor, I have to do what’s best for all the people of this city. The hard working ones –
Lino: You mean the rich ones.
Mayor: The ones that contribute. The ones that are sick and tired of that cesspool.
Tremaine: Cesspool? You need to wake up, my man. These people are rising up.
And they are. Damien has been secretly broadcasting everything the mayor says to the city news.
Damien has saved the day. A news report explains that the mayor was arrested for his plot against the projects. Meanwhile, the walls around Brick Mansions will be torn down and the schools, hospitals, and police stations reopened. We end with Damien’s slow-motion drive through the housing project, where we see the former thugs playing basketball and one of the top dealers planting a tree. Not to be outdone, Tremaine announces his campaign for mayor. In the fantasy world of this movie, all it took was a few well-placed exclamations of the worth of public housing residents as people for the social and political system to be completely changed.
After watching Brick Mansions, I was left to ponder: did the film makers intentionally set out to show a revenge fantasy in which those in power get their comeuppance and public housing is returned to its pre-1960s role of a socially supported public good, rather than the reputation for lazy welfare moms it has today? Having not yet viewed the original French film, I can’t speak to how much of the plot is incidental to the re-make’s Detroit setting versus how much was changed to speak to history of public housing in the United States. Whatever the series of events which led to its making, Brick Mansions opens up space for dialogue not typically seen in an action movie. Next time you want a little ham-fisted social commentary with your mindless action film, try giving it a watch.