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City on fire 

Racial tensions crash in Freedomland

The concept of "innocent until proven guilty" provides one of the pillars of America's legal institutions -- in theory, at least. In its treatment of African-Americans, sometimes the criminal justice system seems to espouse "guilty until proven innocent."

Kenneth Meeks' book Driving While Black explores the phenomenon of racial profiling, which saw a high-profile example in the media following Hurricane Katrina. Captions for two separate photos, both run by the Associated Press, described African-Americans as having "looted," as opposed to white refugees who "found" goods.

The tension of unequal justice vs. the necessities of enforcing the law provides the heart of Freedomland. In the spirit of the social issues films of the 1970s, Freedomland addresses a hot contemporary topic but nearly fumbles it, as if dazzled by celebrity and a desire to oversimplify its story. Though Freedomland can disappoint as drama, its strong supporting cast and social conscience should not be overlooked.

Adapting his own novel, screenwriter Richard Price sets Freedomland in two fictional New Jersey cities: primarily poor, black Demspey, and the more middle-class, white Gannon. Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), a dazed white woman with stigmata-like wounds on her hands, staggers into the Dempsey emergency room. She eventually claims to have been carjacked by a black man -- who drove off with her 4-year-old son in the backseat.

Brenda's statement creates a storm of mobilized police officers and scoop-hungry reporters. Standing at the eye of the hurricane is Dempsey detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), who's the first to interview Brenda. But he's also a go-to-guy in Dempsey's black community: With the nickname "Big Daddy," he feels particularly paternal toward Armstrong, a black housing project that's like a city unto itself.

The search for the carjacker and Brenda's son set Dempsey and Gannon at odds, especially since a combative Gannon police officer (Ron Eldard) is the missing boy's uncle. Police impose a kind of instant apartheid on Armstrong, letting no one leave until they've combed the buildings for suspects. The case peels back some of the ugliest prejudices in America's big cities. The police sketch drawing of Brenda's assailant becomes a kind of black bogeyman, while people suggest that Brenda, an otherwise beloved worker at Armstrong's children center, was "asking for it" by driving alone in Dempsey late at night.

A group called Friends of Kent tries to transcend the racial divide. Led by no-nonsense Karen Collucci ("The Sopranos'" Edie Falco), the highly organized grassroots group of mothers volunteer their services in high-profile missing children cases. When they search for Brenda's son in a wooded park and an abandoned orphanage called Freedomland, the film shows a fascinated attention to the procedures of huge searches, like the way crusading moms duct-tape their pants legs shut to keep out the insects.

Tom Wolfe famously argued for novelists to venture out in the world like beat reporters, and Price, known for hanging out in squad cars and housing projects, has long been a standard-bearer for that kind of writing. Price also contributes to HBO's "The Wire," a show that shares his interest in exploring inner-city problems in depth while capturing the gallows humor shared by criminals and law enforcement alike.

A more low-key, quasi-documentary like "The Wire" would have served Freedomland better than the amped-up stylishness of director Joe Roth, who shoots the spooky basement of Freedomland like it's a serial killer flick like Seven. In the film, the situations escalate from zero to riot in virtually the blink of an eye, with few indications for how charged feelings accumulate. I wasn't a big fan of Crash, another slick, well-intentioned film about race, but at least writer/director Paul Haggis appreciated a sense of pace and buildup when dealing with the urban problems that feed racial animosity.

While Moore deserves her reputation as a brilliant movie actress, she's Freedomland's most conspicuous problem, and offers a textbook case of why a performance shouldn't start at its emotional heights -- because it has nowhere to go. Granted, Brenda's grief and shock call for the rawness that Moore can specialize in. But Moore, frequently shot in agonizing close-ups, makes Brenda so jittery, she's more like a street lunatic than a traumatized mother. We're suspicious of her long before any of the professionals seem to be.

The emphasis on Moore nearly throws the entire film off balance, threatening to turn Freedomland into a misguided showcase for a single movie star. Falco's scenes help keep Freedomland grounded. She masterfully underplays a scene in which her character, Karen, describes losing her own son, then almost subliminally begins to coax the truth out of Brenda. Jackson provides an older, wiser version of his typical alpha male bad ass, who loses confidence in his understanding of "his" city.

An intriguing theme of overcompensating surrogate parents unites Freedomland's central characters. Brenda, Karen and Lorenzo all labor to help other people's children, even though they each fail their own offspring. A parent's love might be powerful, might even be colorblind, but Freedomland suggests that it may be no match for the forces of poverty and despair in the inner city. Freedomland contains several such strong ideas, but you have to look past prominent flaws on the film's surface.

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