Freedomland, a dying-to-be-cathartic drama of American racial turmoil, lets us know from the outset that we’re in for a heady dose of social studies. An adaptation of Richard Price’s 1998 novel (Price wrote the script himself), directed by the earnest rather than inspired Joe Roth, it’s set in and around a New Jersey public housing project, and it starts by hitting us with bulletins from a war zone: a candlelight vigil for missing children, Julianne Moore slamming into the emergency room with blood — literally — on her hands. Samuel L. Jackson, in a gray goatee and fedora, surveys the gathering storm from his car, a detective smoldering with silent dismay. (How noble is this cop? His name is Lorenzo Council.) Veteran moviegoers won’t be fooled: When Sam Jackson grows quiet, we’re surely two scenes away from a high-voltage tantrum.

It takes a while to sort out the chaos, but once Freedomland gets going, the movie comes down to the following pressure cooker: Brenda Martin (Moore), a woman on the verge of about three breakdowns at once, claims to be the victim of a carjacking. A large black man, she says, bullied her out of her vehicle and shoved her to the ground, her palms sliding ragged over a field of broken glass. The real crime, however, is that her 4-year-old son, Cody, was sleeping in the backseat. Is he now safe? Or even alive?

As a movie plot point, a lost or abducted child doesn’t exactly suggest a lot of gray area. Kids are innocent; their attackers are bad. Period. The complication in Freedomland arises out of Brenda’s hysteria, which is so extreme that we doubt her story even before we’ve bought into it, and from the movie’s dogged, booby-trapped demonstration of the sins of racism. Julianne Moore, pale and dissolute, with pink-rimmed eyes and stringy hair that falls into her face, does a scrupulous job of playing a forlorn, broken-down mother, a woman who claims so feverishly not to be a drug addict that we sit back and wait for the story of how she bottomed out on drugs. Shrieking, moaning, and crying, smashing her damaged hands on the wall (at times, Brenda is devoured by self-loathing), Moore doesn’t just act. She goes on the attack, embracing the kind of lower-rung-of-the-middle-class role that actresses from Jodie Foster to Meryl Streep have long savored. Her performance is an achievement of sorts, yet, like the movie itself, it’s also strenuous and joyless.

As a novel, Freedomland was a gloss on Price’s vastly superior Clockers, and the movie, likewise, is a hokey and diagrammed affair, without Price’s trademark verbal fireworks. It’s thesis filmmaking masquerading as organic drama. The disappearance of Brenda’s child becomes a media event, as the Jersey cops, setting up a vast phalanx of sawhorses, flood the neighborhood with their blue-uniformed presence, putting the Armstrong housing projects in lockdown. Assuming that the attacker must have come from the projects, the cops distribute the usual sketch — of an anonymous, threatening black face in a Una-bomber hood. That face becomes the film’s emblem of injustice.

The obsession with a missing white child, in a world where countless missing black children go unremarked upon, has too many topical resonances to count (most recently, it carries an overtone of the Aruba case), yet there’s a half-baked quality to Freedomland‘s outrage. The film, for all its huffing and puffing, doesn’t allow a single person in the projects to become a fleshed-out character. The full weight of black anger and sorrow is carried by Jackson’s cop, who’s the sole link between the Armstrong residents and their police aggressors. As he takes Brenda under his wing, protecting her, almost coddling her, trying to pry out the truth of what happened, Jackson makes Council a torn and tortured soul, with a dicey legacy of his own (he has a son in jail). Yet the man’s gruff honor is never in doubt, and the movie gives him too many lines like ”The more you try to know, the more mysterious life gets.” Roth, at times, directs like a caricature of a Hollywood liberal, as when he stages the climactic race riot with an angelic choir on the soundtrack. (The real message: It makes him feel good.)

Freedomland, with its showy compassion for ”the children,” its meticulous slides from despair to hope and back again, is a movie that appears to have been made in the shadow of Crash. It has a similar didactic idealism, the view that if you scratch a bigot, you’ll find a saint. In the end, there’s something distressingly too easy about that. Watchable as it is, Freedomland comes to very little, because it keeps showing you the seams of its good intentions.

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