I think the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has taught us how deeply race infuses, and sadly divides, all aspects of the lives we lead in contemporary America. In the vast areas of Orleans Parish that flooded, whites and blacks alike lost their homes and most of their worldly possessions. Citizens of whatever color are still living out of town because they have no homes and in many cases no jobs to return to. Mother Nature would seem to be colorblind. And yet some African Americans mouth conspiracy theories about dynamited levees, and some Caucasians mutter proclamations of satisfaction that the city is, at least for now, no longer so decisively black. A storm that in one way or another touched the lives of almost everyone in our city becomes not about what unites us, but about what divides us. Some of these same ideas fueled Richard Price's novel Freedomland, which he has now adapted into a thoughtful and intermittently terrific, if flawed, film.
Directed unevenly by Joe Roth, Freedomland is ostensibly a thriller about a kidnapped child, but is more effective as a meditation about racial division. The narrative begins when a distraught and bloodied Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) stumbles into a New Jersey hospital with a barely coherent story about having been carjacked. Brenda is white, and she says that her assailant was a young black man who accosted her when she tried to take a shortcut through a public housing development. Brenda's case is assigned to African-American police detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) who takes a special pride in his relationship with the occupants of the housing project, particularly its young black men. Lorenzo wants to help Brenda, but he wants to act expeditiously before many black men are blamed for what Brenda says one did to her.
The story is quickly complicated when Brenda adds something chilling to her story: Her 4-year-old son, Cody (Marlon Sherman), was in the backseat of her car when it was stolen. Moreover, it develops that Brenda's brother Danny (Ron Eldard) is a racist white cop from a nearby town. Danny and Lorenzo know each other, and their relationship is not cordial. Danny and his superiors manage to convince Lorenzo's boss to place the housing development in lockdown, hoping that the residents will give up the identity of the carjacker to secure their own ability to move about.
I guess I would not be shocked to learn that something like this has actually happened in America, but I can't imagine any legal authority validating it, at least not as portrayed in this instance. In the name of apprehending a criminal and saving a child's life, municipal authorities create a racial powder keg that threatens to explode into a bloody riot.
The thriller aspects of the story are not attentively orchestrated. Aside from statistics Lorenzo quotes too far long in the movie, we have no idea why he reacts to Brenda the way he does early on. Jackson doesn't make Lorenzo seem a racist, but too soon he's badgering Brenda in a manner seemingly more likely to make her collapse than to provide assistance to his investigation. Roth aggravates matters by jerking his camera around and editing scenes into a frenzied montage. Roth's blocking is mysterious throughout, in one scene suggestively positioning his characters as if from a different movie. Ultimately, Lorenzo seeks the assistance of a private-citizens group that specializes in tracking missing children. Lorenzo hardly seems the type to make league with such people, and this plot weakness is not shored by his initial reluctance to do so. The citizens group, however, does provide a meaty supporting role for the wonderful Edie Falco (unrecognizable from her Sopranos work as Carmela Soprano).
In the end, the secrets that Lorenzo extracts from Brenda in order to solve the case seem lifted from familiar national headlines without being artfully enough integrated into her character. Still, screenwriter Price gives Brenda great speeches about the redemptive power of a child's love all mixed together with searing revelations about the blinding agony of longing. Freedomland is being released so early in 2006 that Moore's performance will likely be forgotten by the time the next round of Oscar ballots get distributed, and that's a shame because she's brilliant.
Price creates Lorenzo in comparable depth, and Jackson contributes an equally strong performance, rendering his character in complicated layers: a dedicated, successful professional, a father figure with a son in prison, a strong, proud African American who has made his way in a white world, mastering when, where and how to compromise on strategies without ever sacrificing his soul. These complications require an aerialist's balance, and Jackson never teeters on the wire. In the end, he gets to deliver the film's great line: "God's grace is retroactive." Whatever our sins of a personal, social or racial nature, if we start right now, it's not too late to make amends.
- Skeptical cop Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to get information from supposed victim Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) in Joe Roth's racially charged crime thriller, Freedomland.