Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’
Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up. Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence. I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.
Do not let the reactions of the secular critics influence your decision of whether to go or to skip this police procedural drama filled with overtones of racism. Their ratings have ranged from F (The NY TIMES) to A- (The HOLLYWOOD REPORTER), revealing how subjective the ratings of critics can be. Although there is no doubt the film is flawed, I believe it is well worth seeing and pondering, its insights into racism not as profound as Crash or even Something New, but still far ahead of most other films. Samuel L. Jackson’s Lorenzo Council is an especially interesting policeman possessed of deep faith that reaches out to Julianne Moore’s traumatized Brenda Martin and his imprisoned son Jason Council (Dorian Missick).
The film opens with a bedraggled looking Brenda, her hands covered with blood, walking in the night near the grounds of Freedomland, an ironically named abandoned children’s care center that had been closed after a huge scandal erupted because the children had been so abused there. At a hospital emergency ward Lorenzo Council takes her in tow, trying to make sense of her incoherent account that she was dragged out of her van by a black carjacker and shoved to the ground where the broken glass lacerated her hands. Something does not seem right to the policeman, experienced in such cases of trauma. Why was she driving alone near the Freedomland grounds? She seems to be holding something back, he muses. As indeed she is. She finally blurts out that her four year-old son Cody was in the back seat. The carjacker has taken off with the child in the back.
Things really start to move fast when Council phones in an APB with this revelation. His interrogation and his phoning in are greatly hampered when he has an asthma attack, requiring him to pause long enough to puff on his inhaler. Brenda has been working at the childcare center at Armstrong House, a low-income housing development made up almost entirely of black residents. Council, assigned to help protect Armstrong, knows her slightly, but almost has to drag the information from her, she being almost catatonic. When her policeman brother Danny Martin (Ron Eldard) arrives, he almost goes ballistic, dredging up her history of drug addiction and accusing her of child neglect.
Matters outside also are stormy, the local town of Dempsy cops deciding that the carjacker must be a resident of the Armstrong housing center, and thus impose a lockdown on the neighborhood. Blocked from entering or leaving, the African-Americans gather in angry groups, ready to riot at the slightest provocation, so resentful are they of the accusation that the object of the manhunt is one of their number. Everyone in the Project loves Brenda and the child, they declare, so that none of them would have done such a thing. And, they rightly point out, there never has been such a display of police force when one of their children disappeared. But now that a white child is missing, not only do all of the local cops show up, but a contingent from the all white town of Gannon also descend upon them. Brenda’s brother Danny is among these, and his unreasoning racism and desire to solve the mystery add fuel to the flames, posing the biggest threat to the unstable peace.
More helpful is a group known as The Friends of Kent, a group of volunteers who search for missing children. Their founder, Karen Collucci (Edie Falco) started the group when her son Kent disappeared ten years earlier and was never found. They organize a massive search of the grounds of Freedomland. Karen, in one moving scene on the Freedomland grounds, is able to communicate heart to heart with Brenda. Eventually the awful truth comes out, as matters between the frustrated blacks of Armstrong and the white cops start to spin out of control, despite the desperate efforts of Council.
Director Joe Roth and screenwriter Richard Price (the latter adapting his own novel) allow no let-up from the tension. Partly due to the jerky movements of his hand-held camera during the first part of the film, as well as some questionable editing, the film sometimes is hard to watch—nor does the script show much subtlety. There were times when some of the words put into Julianne Moore’s mouth evoked inappropriate laughter from the audience, but the skills of the actress and her co-leader Jackson, plus perhaps the best performance of all, that of Edie Falco, make us believe in and root for theses characters. Council’s strong Christian faith, expressed several times in his meetings with Brenda, is a welcome addition to the detective genre, and must be what saves a man who has seen so much of the dark side of humanity, from becoming hard and cynical.
Warning: Some of the questions might be spoilers, so you might want to wait to see the film before reading further.
1) How is this story different from other crime/police dramas? Were you surprised by the developments in the case of the missing four year-old Cody Martin?
2) Why do you think Brenda did what she did? How might Psalm 27 be appropriate for Brenda?
3) How is Lorenzo Council different from most other police detectives? What do you think happened between him and his son? How might their story be both a prodigal Son and a Prodigal Father story?
4) Compare Council’s assurance, “Nothing happens unless God wills it” with the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8:28. What do you think? Any danger of developing a fatalistic philosophy here? What do you see in Lorenzo that such is not the case? What is he doing with his son to make up for the past?
5) What are the signs of racism that we see in the film? Is there such a problem between white police and black citizens in your community? Anything being done about it? Are the churches involved?
6) What is it that sets off the riot? How is this true to what has happened in many communities?
7) What do you think of Brenda’s declaration; “I love you for the way you talk with me”? An example of what psychologists call transference? From the way her brother Danny has treated her, how do you think that she has been made to feel about herself?
8) What do you think of Lorenzo’s counsel to her at the end? How can reaching out to others be part of our process of finding healing for ourselves? How is his advice as to what Brenda should do in her circumstances similar to what the apostle Paul did in Acts 28:16-31? Or another apostle at the very end of the film The Apostle?