When playing the race card doesn't work

Posted: Feb 21, 2006 12:01 AM

I can’t prove it, but I have a theory that Freedomland, an over-the-top allegory on racism clumsily wrapped in thriller garb, was supposed to be one of Sony’s Academy Award contenders this year. But when the final product didn’t look like much of a competitor, the studio decided to hold its release until Hollywood’s year-end dash for honors was officially over.

Certainly, the outdated political themes are no more hackneyed or heavy-handed than most of the films that did garner nominations, and the acting is markedly better.

Julianne Moore plays Brenda, a single mother who, as the film opens, has just been carjacked in a black neighborhood. Stumbling into the E.R., shredded palms dripping blood onto the linoleum, she struggles to tell investigator Lorenzo (Samuel L. Jackson) the most pertinent information about the theft: namely, that her son was in the car.

Despite how desperately the hysterical, slow-witted woman keeps screaming that she wants her son, Lorenzo can’t get enough information out of her to launch a proper search. She blubbers that a “black man” took her Acura, but her descriptions to a sketch artist result in an exaggerated portrait that bears little resemblance to an actual human.

In the meantime, racial tensions erupt when Brenda’s brother (Ron Eldard), a cop from a nice, white suburb, uses his clout to enforce lockdowns around the housing project where her car was stolen. As the likelihood for riots increases, the focus of the film quickly turns from mystery to moralizing.

Moore, Jackson, and Eldard, along with Sopranos star Edie Falco, who plays the leader of a volunteer posse that specializes in finding abducted children, each give finely drawn performances that are wasted in material bogged down by its own sense of social justice.

If overrated Oscar-nominee Charlize Theron really wants to act like she’s from the wrong side of the tracks, she could take a few lessons from Moore. Moore’s performance as a brokedown, hard-up single parent is both compelling and nauseating in its rawness. Not for a moment do we mistake her for a Hollywood beauty with a bit of coal smudged on her face.

Through Moore, Freedomland brushes up against volatile, timely themes that have yet to be fully explored on film. In an economic class where fathers are scarce and husbands even more so, mothers still want to feel loved and desired. As we see on the news every night, this frequently leads them to bring wolves right into the den with their children. It also sometimes causes them to lean too heavily on the inherently sympathetic title, “single mother”.

The parts of the script that deal with Brenda’s selfishness and psychosis reach something close to insight on such modern manifestations of motherhood. But before those insights can be fully mined, the story turns back to overly-simplistic, harmful Rodney King characterizations of racial strife.

One 2006 film that did deserve the accolades it received, Crash, proves that there are still honest, gripping films to be made about race. Freedomland just isn’t one of them.