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OK. We get it. No really, we do (well, most of us anyway). The world isn’t black and white. It comes in shades of gray, brown, yellow, red, tan, pasty and a host of other shades and hues. If that’s going to be the focus of your movie you’d better be darn sure you’ve done it well. Those who have come before you have set the bar pretty high and it’s a short trip to go from profound to cliché. Personally, I love a good movie that tackles those sorts of issues but only when it handles them well, raising hard questions about my own perspectives on life. Freedomland tries miserably to be just such a film but falls flat on its face in the effort.
A white woman shows up in a hospital, her hands covered in blood. A street-wise black detective with deep roots in the community is assigned to her case. She explains how she’s just been carjacked in a low income, mostly black district. Her four year old son was in the back of the car. An almost entirely white police force jumps to the task of sealing off the entire neighborhood, prohibiting its residents from leaving until the crime is solved. Tensions immediately begin mounting while black and white lines are drawn in the grey of broken city asphalt. So begins the movie’s troubling and tiring tale.
Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore throw themselves into the roles of black cop and white victim with the kinds of passion and fury they’ve rarely shown before. This could very well be Jackson’s most emotionally honest performance to date and Moore takes amazing risks with her character, showing sides of the human psyche most of us would probably rather pretend doesn’t exist. I’m sad to say all that incredible dramatic effort is frittered away on a plot riddled with storyline problems and trite emotional baggage. While busying himself with the task of making his movie important, director Joe Roth seems to have forgotten to make it something watchable.
As the story progresses we’re slowly introduced to a widening circle of characters, each in search of a different sort of truth. We meet various members of the black neighborhood struggling against an unjust lockdown. A little further along we meet the white woman’s brother, a cop in search of the black guy he believes killed his nephew. Later still it’s the head of a volunteer group that looks for missing kids who is still coping with the loss of her own child. The cast of characters starts to feel like a Mickey Mouse Club therapy session. “Hi, I’m Billy, and I have rage issues!” Each one seems more two-dimensional than the last, a trend that slowly drags the movie down.
With each new layer of personalities and situations it becomes painfully clear that the person responsible for adapting the screenplay (namely Richard Price, the man who also wrote the novel on which the movie is based) has failed horribly. Instead of picking what was most important and crafting a film around it, he tried to pack in a little bit of everything regardless of whether or not it worked. The end product is the cinematic equivalent of Jungle Juice, complete with dizziness, exhaustion, and a draining hangover.
Worst of all, Roth and Price have completely abandoned the one element that makes this kind of touchy-subject movie bearable: humor. It’s one thing to make us think, another to withhold any chance for laughter. Amongst life’s harshest realities there’s always a bit of amusement or fleeting delight and to forget such a crucial element entirely rings false and smacks of self-importance. Hey, if Spielberg can find a way to weave a smile into Schindler’s List it can be done in any story.
There are some redeeming qualities to Freedomland beyond its wasted performances. Peppered throughout the meandering plotline are scenes of gut wrenching honesty and powerful revelations. Jackson’s character is particularly profound. As a moral rock and voice of reason he offers up sage words of wisdom that would seem to be a good starting place for an ending to society’s various cycle of violence. Those erudite footnotes are likely to fall on deaf ears though; the audience will likely have fallen asleep by the time he gets around to sharing them.
For all its potential, Freedomland simply does not make the grade, a real shame given the importance of the issues it addresses. You know you’re in trouble when you honestly start expecting Rodney King and John Walsh to show up, imploring us to all just get along so that we can bring the kids home. In a time when Hollywood desperately needs quality, original films to counterbalance the mindless march of sequels and remakes, it’s a tragedy to see this kind of project go so horribly astray.