Richard Price’s “Freedomland” was one of the most gripping and disturbing novels I’ve ever read. What starts off seeming to be a straightforward police procedural evolves into an increasingly intense portrait of racial tension. It achieved on the page the same kind of prejudice-challenging urgency that Spike Lee’s masterful Do the Right Thing had on the screen. The book seemed like it could provide the basis for an equally great movie, except for one thing: it was too long and detailed to turn into a 2-hour film.
To deal with that problem, Price authored the screenplay for Freedomland the movie, paring his story down to the essentials while still maintaining the truthfulness of the book.
One of the things that the screen adaptation gets right is the casting. Samuel L. Jackson is perfectly cast as Lorenzo Council, a Dempsey, New Jersey police detective who takes pride in looking out for the black residents of the local Anderson housing projects. Lorenzo is the kind of guy a woman can go to if her boyfriend is hitting her; he’ll make sure it stops happening. While dealing with one such issue on a particular evening, a call comes over the walkie-talkie. A woman has shown up at a local hospital claiming that she was carjacked by a black man near the projects. Lorenzo asks around. No one has seen or heard anything out of the ordinary, and certainly someone there would have known something had a carjacking taken place.
Curious, he heads to the hospital to meet Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore, also cast extremely well). Her hands are all cut from the scuffle and she is distraught. It takes only a few moments before she reveals that her 4 year-old son was in the back of the car. Lorenzo calls in the new information, and the mostly white police force of neighboring town Gannon blockades the housing project, not letting anyone enter or leave. The place becomes, in effect, an internment camp. The residents of Anderson resent the show of force, arguing that such a thing surely would never occur in a white neighborhood.
Lorenzo understands quite clearly that a major riot is going to take place if something doesn’t happen soon. But he also identifies with Brenda, who appears to be drifting deeper and deeper into a mental breakdown. He spends the first 24 hours trying to extract details about the crime and negotiating with the Gannon cops. Then he starts to wonder if Brenda is holding information back. With tension at Anderson ready to boil over, Lorenzo calls in an advocacy group that specializes in finding missing children. Its leader, Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), tries to connect with Brenda to ascertain whether she is hiding something. The trail eventually leads to an abandoned orphanage known as Freedomland. What happens is explosive for all the characters.
”Freedomland” (the novel) was all about the idea that crimes against whites are handled differently than crimes against blacks. It asked why, when a black child is missing or kidnapped, it does not receive the same attention as when a white child can’t be found. The book also addressed racial scapegoating, the way it’s all too easy for society point fingers at black men for any crime. (Paging Susan Smith.) In the story, the residents of Anderson rebelled against the local police force and the media because they knew that being black and poor is not the same as being a criminal; an entire group of innocent people should not be automatically suspect simply based on those criteria.
The dilemma for Lorenzo is palpable on the page. If this woman is telling the truth, it will provide the local police with an excuse to take similar over-the-top actions against black neighborhoods in the future. On the other hand, if Brenda has fabricated her story, a serious racial injustice has occurred which may, in turn, create even more tension. Lorenzo spent much of the book bouncing back and forth, wanting to help (and believe) Brenda but also wanting to quell things in his own neighborhood. He viewed himself as hopeful savior to both sides.
Price went into painstaking detail about the situation, continually cranking up the tension and showing how fragile things were Freedomland, which runs a little under two hours, is not nearly as intricate as the book was. It introduces the same themes and keeps the same overall plot, yet eliminates many of the incidental scenes that added to the cumulative weight placed on Lorenzo. To be fair, I think the film does just about all it realistically can. The ideas inherent in Price’s story are powerful; the movie gets credit for raising them, even if it lacks the soul-stirring power of the book.
There is nothing in director Joe Roth’s resume to make you think he could make Freedomland. The Revolution Studios head has also been behind the camera for clunkers like America’s Sweethearts and Christmas with the Kranks. Nevertheless, he seems to have an understanding of the story’s power. While someone like Spike Lee might have been a more logical or exciting choice to adapt this material, Roth generally does a good job balancing all the different plot threads. A few scenes in the final section come off as a bit rushed (as though there are some deleted scenes on the cutting room floor), but overall the politics of the story are authentic. You can feel the anger and tension rising, and Jackson brings his character’s dilemma front and center.
It’s amazing how versatile Jackson is. This is one his best recent roles, a part he can really sink his teeth into. The same goes for Julianne Moore. Midway through, Brenda has a major breakdown, delivering a lengthy soliloquy of pain and self-torture. In the wrong hands, it could be melodramatic, but Moore plays it with perfect realism. I also liked Edie Falco, who is the calm, rational center of the story.
I’m not sure how Freedomland is going to play to audiences. As a two-hour movie, it doesn’t have the time to put racial tension under a microscope the way the novel did. On the other hand, as someone who loved the book, I see value in the film, even if it is watered down somewhat. The core truth of Price’s work is still here. It would have been easy to just pay lip service to the race issues. For whatever limitations it has in its transition from page to screen, Freedomland tries to address it head-on which, for me, makes the movie worth seeing.
( out of four)
Note: It has nothing to do with the film itself, but there is an interesting anachronism in Freedomland. A title at the beginning sets the story in 1999, yet a few moments later an extra can clearly be seen wearing a G-Unit sweatshirt. Weird.
Freedomland is rated R for language and some violent content. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
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