Though it announces right off that it’s set in 1999, Freedomland doesn’t look back at a particular time or place. The frustration and unrest in an urban housing project might exist at pretty much any time over the past few decades. Still, its notorious inspiration is clear enough: in 1994, Susan Smith drowned her two young sons in South Carolina and claimed she had been carjacked by “a black man.” Though she was convicted for the murders, there was no possible legal redress for the lie she told — that a black man had stolen her car with the little boys inside. The effect was a media frenzy that included her tearful pleas for their safe return even as she knew they were drowned, as well as the suspicion of most any black man in the vicinity and beyond. (For a brilliant and incisive consideration of the many problems represented in this event, see Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination .)
Richard Price wrote the novel Freedomland in 1998, granting voice not only to a Susan-Smithlike character, but also to some black residents of a New Jersey housing project enraged by the white mother’s accusation and worse, the assumption by cops and journalists alike that her holey story made sense. In Joe Roth’s movie version, this story is briefly granted weight by the fact that it’s recited by Julianne Moore. As recovering addict Brenda, Moore is effectively pale and red-eyed, fragile and cagey, and broken enough that you might feel sympathy. For a minute, anyway. She’s rendered unreliable almost immediately when the detective assigned to pursue her case, one Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), announces that she’s lying.
This is a problem. It’s not that you need to believe Brenda, who looks unsteady from the start. It’s that you’re invited to judge her, as well as the members of the black community where she teaches young children, before you know much about them. Lorenzo is plainly the point of identification — troubled, complicated, well acted by Jackson — but left without much of a context beyond a series of stereotypes.
Brenda is one of these, the frail white lady junkie. She first appears wandering through the Armstrong Projects at night, enfeebled by grief and bloodied by who knows what. Making her way to a medical center, she’s engulfed by ER doctors and interviewed by Lorenzo, who learns she has been carjacked and thrown to the ground by a young black man and then, only minutes into the exchange, that her four-year-old son was in the backseat.
Lorenzo launches into a veritable panic, the camera emulating his assaultive questioning of Brenda and his own increasing agitation. As he gasps for air — you learn in this instant that he’s asthmatic and his inhaler’s empty, to boot — the film makes clear its own primary mode: poetic bludgeoning. Lorenzo’s (asthma) attack is a familiar metaphor, frightening Brenda, who cowers against the wall, and indicating his tetchy efforts to straighten out relations between perennially frustrated project inhabitants and the cops who detest them. At the same time, Brenda’s real-enough pain is recast as a sign of her incapacity and worse, her status as emblem. Incarnating distrust and desperation, she’s suddenly turned from a character into the gap between truth and meaning.
And as such, Brenda is where the film can’t make sense. Inexplicably, Lorenzo takes her to the projects that very night, even as the confrontation between residents and police tilts toward violence. This is orchestrated and melodramatic, though the situation is surely likely. Even before Brenda’s incident, the film sets up the “unrest” via a chosen few, briefly visible speakers, including the odiously named Reverend Longway (always excellent Clarke Peters) and the kid with a target on his back, Rafik (Fly Williams III). The guys in the project are rendered weak and angry — whether activists or hustlers, they’re facing impossible odds, looking to Lorenzo for the little bits of help he might provide (it’s not like he has an easy time in the department, being a recovering addict).
Still, Lorenzo makes the effort, looking after Felicia (Aunjanue Ellis), whose partner Billy (Anthony Mackie) has begun to hit her. “You scared?” asks the oddly clueless Lorenzo, as she rolls her eyes to answer. Reports from the stoop-sitters let Lorenzo know what’s going wrong: even when the city does send over refrigerators or laptops, they’re unusable due to missing parts or half-assed deliveries. Though Lorenzo’s really just another employee, he tries to play liaison between the “community” and the city, though it’s soon clear this only makes both sides doubt him.
Worse, the film sneaks in a moment to show Lorenzo’s motivation (behind his earnest determination to do good) is delivered in a couple of minutes as, in the middle of the ruckus, he leaves Brenda in her apartment with Felicia, and visits his son (Dorian Missick) in prison (visiting hours are anytime for cops, apparently).
When Lorenzo drags Brenda down to Armstrong again the next morning, his aim is clear. He presses her against an apartment wall, menacing by his sheer size and Jackson’s signature ferocity, while she cowers and tears up, blubbering that she can’t say any more. Framed from the window, detectives and uniforms “question” witnesses or suspects: the skewed high angle makes the scene, which plays out as repeated pushing and growling, without narrative logic, into a seeming punishment for Brenda. This even as her brother Danny (Ron Eldard), a detective from another precinct, is appearing on a tv conveniently hooked up so Lorenzo can see it as he walks into and out of the projects, issuing a plea to the kidnapper to release his precious nephew.
With a media maelstrom now piled onto the cops-folks enmity, Lorenzo calls in a third term, a child-finding group headed by two very different mothers, hard-faced Karen (Edie Falco) and gently supportive Marie (Latanya Richardson Jackson). The group has a system, honed by unfortunate years of practice. To demonstrate, the film booms into symbolic overkill: accompanied by big music, the searchers arm themselves with water bottles, walking sticks, and bug spray, and fan out in a looming crane shot over an area known as “Freedomland,” an abandoned children’s home where kids were abused for years (to pound this point, the camera picks up little shoes and broken dolls).
And so Freedomland is full of hauntings, institutional and personal, with Brenda burdened at last with speaking some version of “truth.” Using language elegiac and perfect and quite unlike her own, Brenda confesses her great sin and the film’s great lacuna (even when revealed, it remains inert, as if it’s supposed to speak for itself, a chunk of cultural legacy that doesn’t need explaining, but dumps loads of judgment on her). For her desire, she pays a terrible price.