- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

At a recent press junket, the first thing European reporters asked Richard Price, author and screenwriter of “Freedomland,” a gripping racial drama set in inner-city New Jersey that opens in area theaters today, is whether America has a so-called “Muslim street.”

In other words: Will America’s Muslim population be rioting anytime soon?

Mr. Price, who speaks in a gruffly elegant patois, chuckles: “I think Europe tends to feel superior to America because they [messed] up people on other continents, and we brought people here to [mess] them up. Well, now it’s in their back yard.

“Ironically, the word ‘suburbs’ in Europe means ‘ghetto,’” he continues. “You go in from the airport to the city center in Paris, and you pass all those high-rises with laundry hanging out. It’s all Algerian or Moroccan — the countries [they] conquered and lost 50 years ago.”

Mr. Price rightly notes that American Muslims are mostly middle- or working-class and comparatively pacific; they don’t seethe with alienation and rage as do their counterparts in the banlieux of Paris. Nor have they caused civil unrest here in the wake of the Danish Muhammad cartoons, which sparked violent protests across the Middle East.

The urban scholar Joel Kotkin notes in American Enterprise magazine that American Muslims “are among the most entrepreneurial and well-educated groups, with roughly 60 percent college educated and two-thirds earning over $50,000 a year.”

As it happens, though, America has a unique, long-standing problem of its own, with which Mr. Price, a native outer-borough New Yorker, is intimately familiar: the inner-city black underclass.

Most famous for his drug underworld chronicle “Clockers,” which he and director Spike Lee adapted for an uneven 1995 movie, Mr. Price has spent countless hours absorbing — he prefers the proper journalistic term “hanging out” — the cultural dysfunctionalities of housing projects in Jersey City, Newark, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

When the novel “Freedomland” was published in 1998, America was in a warm bath of Clinton-era amnesia. These were the “go-go ‘90s,” the decade in which the tide of high technology and “fair” fiscal policies and welfare reform truly lifted all boats.

All the important cultural indices — child hunger, illegitimate births, violent crime — seemed to be trending in the direction of improving social health.

Until Hurricane Katrina.

As the social theorist Charles Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal after Katrina revealed the fresh rot of urban decline in New Orleans, “We in the better parts of town haven’t had to deal with the underclass for many years, having successfully erected screens that keep them from troubling us. We no longer have to send our children to school with their children. Except in the most progressive cities, the homeless have been taken off the streets.”

Mr. Price is far from a conservative ideologue, but politics aside, one senses in him a sharp intelligence and an allergy to cant and easy answers.

He describes a circle of impoverishment in the inner city: “People need jobs? Well, then you need an education. You need an education? Then you need a stable home life. You need a stable home life? Then you need jobs … .”

In places where, as he says, “starvation isn’t biological,” Mr. Price sees a need for positive street-level contact. In the same way that satellites will never fully displace the need for human spies, government checks will never solve urban poverty.

The main character of “Freedomland,” the detective Lorenzo Council (played by Samuel L. Jackson), is an asthmatic Atlas with an entire housing project resting, uneasily, on his shoulders. When a white woman claims she was carjacked in the neighborhood by a black male, the community is placed under lockdown as police search for the assailant. In no time the housing project turns into a Parisian powder keg.

Mr. Price based the Council character on a real-life Jersey City homicide detective, Calvin Hart.

Like Council, Detective Hart is human fabric. “You can’t walk down the street with this guy in certain areas,” says Mr. Price, “without seven people coming up to him, following up on things he set up, asking him for help. He’s like a star.”

Adds Mr. Price: “Not to use a cliche, but in these housing projects, there’s such a dearth of positive male role models. Here you’ve got a guy, a big middle-aged man, who’s got a job, who’s got a gun; he’s not gonna beat you up; he’s not gonna take anything from you; he doesn’t want anything from you. It’s like magnetic filings into the North Pole.”

Even with the presence of the likes of Detective Hart, problems continue: the temptation of easy drug money remains, the scourge of fatherless children is sky-high, and violence is just a shot away.

What to do?

“The government hasn’t a clue,” Mr. Murray writes.

“It’s not like you can drop 50 Calvins from a helicopter into [Chicago housing projects] Taylor Homes or Ida B. Wells or something like that,” says Mr. Price. “It’s such a [tangle] of things that are interconnected. It’s everything.”

If only American cities could be controllable story worlds like that of “Freedomland.”

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