Watching Freedomland reminded me a bit of last year's Cinderella Man. That zero-to-hero boxing movie's conclusion isn't much of a mystery. But, the film created such tension and empathy for the characters, that being able to guess the ending didn't matter. The journey was the important part.
This is probably what the filmmakers of Freedomland hope for. And it mostly works. Based on the book by Richard Price (who also wrote the screenplay), the movie centers on a carjacking/murder case with a solution that is fairly obvious from the get-go. Price has even said publicly that the film is loosely inspired by a famous real-life case. This isn't as much a thriller as it is a drama—propelled by the questions of how the characters will find out the truth. And how that truth will affect their world.
Freedomland begins in a New Jersey public housing project called Armstrong, where local detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) is king and protector. But he's thrown above his head when a white woman, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), is carjacked near Armstrong by a black man. The bad news: Her 4-year-old was asleep in the backseat. Worse news: Her brother (Ron Eldard) is a cop in the almost all-white neighboring suburb of Gannon. Soon, Armstrong is under siege by Gannon cops. There's a bitter stalemate between races as Council investigates the crime. As both races put pressure on him, Council turns to a neighborhood advocacy group, led by Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), which regularly mobilizes to help police find missing children. Together, they try to put the pieces together before Armstrong tears itself apart.
As in the book, Price uses the carjacking/kidnapping of a white child by a black to probe racial fears, prejudice, and smoldering tensions. Injustice rules the day. While one character notes that there've been several recent black-on-black crimes in Armstrong, the projects have never seen a media—or police—presence like the one caused by the disappearance of a white boy. In fact, the case blows the lid off of pent-up aggression. Cops use the siege as an easy opportunity to arrest black residents with trivial warrants. The boy's uncle invites the blacks' anger by blaming an innocent—and savagely beating him. Leaders of the black community fight back with demonstrations, rallies, and accusations, while black teens fight back more violently.
The biggest plus to the film's handling of racism is that it's fairly balanced. And the movie does provide some insights on racial injustices—such as the difference in how the world reacts to a crime against whites compared to blacks. But unlike the superior Crash, the film's investigation doesn't go much further than just showing these somewhat clichéd events. You see these injustices occurring, but little comment is made other than the fact that they are counterproductive and harmful. But we know that. Not much of this is new territory, but it can be gripping at times.
But there are problems with unevenness, not to mention difficulty trying to figure out what is going on. Sometimes it feels as if readers of the book may understand why a scene, a character quirk, or a side plot is included, but uninitiated movie viewers are left in the dark. Characters seem to change back and forth. Roth cuts too quickly and spastically in some places, but plods along slowly in other scenes. For instance, when Council first learns that Martin's son was in the car, the scene is so crazily paced (with lots of quick cuts) and delivered with so much random yelling that it's hard to tell what is wrong. Samuel L. Jackson suddenly spins from a calm but caring take on his Shaft character into a bumbling, weak Barney Fife.
If this unevenness in writing, directing, and acting were ironed out, the film would be quite compelling. Other than the unclear characterizations at times, the acting is top-notch. Moore is invisible inside her strung-out, frantic mother. But the star of the movie is the amazingly steady Falco. She grounds every scene she's in—especially an exceptionally powerful scene with Moore.
Another plus of Freedomland is an interesting, though ultimately underdeveloped, theme of faith. Council delivers two strong—while overwrought—speeches about his belief in God. He speaks of God's will and about letting God "own" your life. Council, a character with mistakes in his past, also in a way has lost a child. But he says, "God's grace is retroactive. God gives us second chances. I didn't do what I could have for my son Jason—and now, I see every kid out there as Jason." And while these speeches contain some great thoughts about faith, redemption and reaching out to others, they come a bit out of the blue. A more steady study of this character—and more evenness in the overall execution of the film—would have made this good movie into a great one.Discussion starters
- What injustices between the races do you see specifically portrayed in the film?
- Talk about racial tensions or assumptions you've seen in your own life. What character in the film do you identify with in terms of racial relations? Why? Do you ever find that your own assumptions about people are painted by color or stereotypes? Or by how they treat you based on your race?
- What can we do, day-to-day, to search our own hearts and practice better relationships with people of different origins, colors, and cultures?
- Why do you think Council cries at the end? What does it say about his character?
- Council says everything that happens—the good and the bad—happens because God wills it. Do you agree? Why or why not? Is this thought a particular help to those grieving?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Freedomland is rated R for language and some violent content. Every bad word you can imagine is used, including taking the Lord's name in vain. Violence includes hand-to-hand street fighting and some blood.
Photos © Copyright Sony Pictures
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 02/23/06
Freedomland stars Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore, but it's Edie Falco (The Sopranos, Sunshine State) who's winning rave reviews.
Joe Roth's film tells the story of Brenda Martin (Moore) who, after being treated in an emergency room for shock and hysteria, explains to police detective Lorenzo Council (Jackson) about a carjacking ordeal and the disappearance of her son. Karen Collucci (Falco), a community activist, then spearheads a search for the child, but before long the case has provoked a clash of racially-divided cultures.
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) disagrees. "Freedomland is everything last year's Crash wanted to be but wasn't. Crackling with racial tension, suspense and two dynamite lead performances, [it] delivers the year's first on-the-money drama." He continues, "Freedomland shows how God can reach out to the lost and the broken, even through conflicted motives and heartbreaking circumstances."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls Freedomland "an overheated, not to mention grim, melodrama that doesn't quite work." Despite its "worthy themes," Forbes says the screenplay "is undermined by plot contrivances and a heightened sense of hysteria that seems phony."
Tom Neven and Steven Isaac (Plugged In) say, "At the heart of Freedomland lies one of Lorenzo's more poignant pronouncements: 'God always gives you another chance. God's grace is retroactive.' Maybe it is because the story is so bleak and destructive that Lorenzo's dissertations on faith and God's character resonate so emphatically … but it's also why even seasoned film critics are having a hard time watching." He also notes, "The story does a good job of showing the destructive consequences of selfishness and a single lie."
Mainstream critics do indeed condemn the film, but many of their complaints have nothing do with the film's emphasis on faith. Most of them criticize it as lousy filmmaking.from Film Forum, 03/02/06
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Freedomland wants to be many things—too many things. It's part thriller, part murder mystery, part racial drama, part psychological study, and part media exposé. The pieces don't fit together well. … But for all of the problems with Freedomland, much of it is oddly compelling. This is thanks largely to the persuasive work done by Mr. Jackson and Ms. Moore … and to some unexpected spiritual depth."