Less than the sum of their parts
By Lady Liberty
* out of ****
The trailers for Freedomland made it look like a pretty good movie — suspenseful, surprising, and more. It also boasted marquee names like Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore. It also didn't hurt that it was based on the successful book by the same name, and that the screenplay was written by the same man who wrote the book (Richard Price). But despite everything it had going for it, Freedomland was a disappointment at best.
Freedomland is actually the name given an old orphanage in Dempsy, New Jersey. Long shut down, its dilapidated buildings and overgrown landscaping occupy the heart of forested area within the city. Not far away is a place some view as almost as shameful and dilapidated: the Armstrong Housing Projects.
Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Adams) considers that segment of the city a part of his regular beat, and the almost entirely black population there views him as a friend. In fact, Detective Council's protectiveness of the Projects serves as a bit of a buffer between Armstrong and the predominantly white police force of the next-door Gannon neighborhood. It's while Council is on a mission to peacefully arrest a man wanted by the Gannon police that he and his white partner, Boyle (William Forsythe) get a call about a carjacking that allegedly occurred within the Armstrong area.
Council leaves his partner behind to manage the ongoing matters in Armstrong while he heads to the local medical center to interview the victim. Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) sees Council from her gurney in the emergency room. Her hands severely lacerated and bloody, she is all but hysterical as she repeats her story once again of being violently carjacked in Armstrong's Martyr's Park by an unidentified young black man. But when she also reveals that her four year-old son is asleep in the back of the vehicle, Council's sense of urgency skyrockets.
The already prevalent black/white tension escalates dramatically not only by Brenda's claims that a black is to blame, but also by the fact that Gannon cops blockade Armstrong so they can search for the missing child. Martin's brother, Danny (Ron Eldard) happens to be one of the Gannon cops, and he's in no mood to let Council handle the case without his active interference and intervention. Brenda doesn't get along with her brother, but she's devastated by the loss of her son and seems swept up in the effort to find him and her own fears for his safety.
As Armstrong's black residents begin to rise up against the indignity and perceived racism of the blockade, Council knows he has little time to solve the case before matters will get out of control. As a result, he accepts help from a local citizens' group headed up by Karen Collucci (Edie Falco) that's geared toward searching for and finding missing children.
Even as volunteers commence searches and Council works to defuse tensions in the neighborhood, he begins to wonder if there's something Brenda is hiding from him. The more he works to solve the case of the missing boy, the more he begins to believe that there's information he must get before he can truly close the case and bring Brenda's boy home. But the pressures of the case begin to pale in contrast to the rapidly growing anger of the Armstrong community, and Council soon finds himself in a position of losing control of both rather than gaining control of either.
Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore are both very good actors. Unfortunately, some of what should have been their best scenes were utterly destroyed by the screenwriter's tendency to have his characters pontificate — and at great length. An interrogation scene becomes an opportunity for Moore to emote, but becomes numbing after some ten minutes of her hysteria. Jackson's empathy with Moore is first touching and then rapidly completely unbelievable as he starts spouting platitudes mixed with Scripture.
The supporting cast is just fine, including nice turns from Aunjanue Ellis as a young black woman with problems of her own, and Peter Friedman as a police Lieutenant whose decisions are almost made for him by circumstance. But again, the lines they're forced to speak largely destroy any realism of their characters. Ron Eldard's angry white cop has much potential, but is cut short late in the film with no explanation. Meanwhile, director Joe Roth has done a nice job with some gritty cinematography and sharp edits, but he's also hamstrung by a script that might read fine in a dramatic novel, but unfolds onscreen as more ridiculous than riveting.
Freedomland has a moderately interesting storyline (though the plot is frankly largely predictable) and plenty of important things to say. Unfortunately, by making it clear from the beginning that something is being hidden, and by hammering the audience over the head with its morality points, it loses any credibility for either aspect of the film. There's quite literally nothing worth seeing here, and I don't recommend the movie for anyone.
POLITICAL NOTES: Freedomland is fraught with the politics of racism. While Freedomland all too often trivializes important matters by its over dramatic treatment of them, one scene stands out in particular. As tensions in the Armstrong area escalate, some young men go beyond the heckling and hollering and start setting fires. Detective Council runs across one young man who's about to light a refrigerator box — with the refrigerator still in it — on fire. Council, who has earlier taken note of a number of new refrigerators on the sidewalk in preparation for installation in some apartments, stops the boy and points out that the appliance is for the good of him and his family. Later, of course, the boy torches it anyway.
In Toledo, Ohio last year, a KKK parade caused residents of a black neighborhood to protest. As KKK members spouted their usual rhetoric about irresponsible and criminal black people, some black citizens proceeded to help the KKK by torching their own neighborhood. "Those white racists are wrong, and we'll prove it by getting all excited and burning our own $hit!" Guess who lamentably came out the winner in that little public relations confrontation?
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Freedomland is rated R for "language and some violent content." In addition, the subject matter (a violent carjacking, a subsequently missing small child) is not appropriate for younger audiences. The R rating is, in my mind, a bit harsh. I believe those of about age 14 or so and up would be just fine with the content of this film. That being said, it's not the content but the quality (largely of the script) that make this movie unsuitable in general for most.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at