‘I never met-a-phor I didn’t like,’ Richard Price told me several years ago on the publication of his novel Freedomland. The metaphor in question was an old public amusement park in New Jersey he frequented as a kid in the early 60s. But the place fell on hard times, the area turned bad, and the drug pushers moved in – leaving a ruin of an arcade and a ready-made (thinly disguised) backdrop for the climax of Price’s book.
At the time Price was already working on the screenplay for the movie, but it’s taken five years for the picture to get made, and the amusement park has been supplanted by an equally derelict orphanage, arguably a creepier and more appropriate backdrop – even so, the name has stuck.
Price’s novel was inspired by the Susan Smith case: a white woman’s car is stolen from under her nose, with her babies in the backseat. She said it was a black man that did it and the media has a field day.
Price relocated the action to his home turf (his screenplays include Color of Money, Clockers and Sea of Love, all set in the New York, New Jersey borders). ‘I wanted to see what would happen in an urban setting,’ he told me.
In the movie, what happens is this: a volunteer youth worker in predominantly black Dempsey, Brenda (Julianne Moore) is discovered walking the streets in shock, her hands cut and bleeding. She says her car has been jacked, that the black man who did it threw her out onto the ground then drove off. She can hardly bring herself to say it out loud: her four-year-old son was in the vehicle.
Lorenzo (Samuel L Jackson) is assigned to look after her. What he really wants to do is look after his people in the projects. His superiors are ordering a lockdown – no one in or out – and Lorenzo fears the situation will boil over into more violence. And he knows there’s something Brenda isn’t telling them.
Freedomland should have been a contender, but the movie falls way short of the mark. Director Joe Roth is that rare thing, a studio boss who also makes films (he used to be head of Disney, but now runs his own company, Revolution). Wearing his other hat, he’s directed the mildly amusing Coupe de Ville and the toothless America’s Sweethearts. Tackling drama for the first time, he’s gone for the handheld approach, but he better not give up the day job; he never gets his finger on the pulse here.
I’d like to think the film’s failure speaks to improving race relations in the States – the hope that a case like this wouldn’t stir up the incendiary bigotry and anger in the way Richard Price imagines. But I’m afraid that’s not it. After Katrina, there’s no disguising the deep divisions that run through the country. It’s just that Roth has botched the job.
When actors of the caliber of Sam Jackson and Julianne Moore are flailing, you know something is seriously amiss. Their scenes together should be charged with tension and mistrust, but instead it’s as if they were acting in different rooms.
Only Edie Falco (from The Sopranos) makes a strong impression in what is, admittedly, the most original role: the leader of a group of volunteers – The Friends of Kent – who organize search parties for missing kids. It’s grim work, and you can see its toll in every fibre of her body.