A woman neglects her four-year old, who takes an overdose of cough syrup and dies while neglected, then she tries to cover up what happened by telling the police she was carjacked and her son was in the car. Julianne Moore plays the lead character of Brenda Martin. She walks down a dirty street at night alone. Men are playing basketball in the park. A candlelight march for a missing child passes by. A cop detective Lorenzo Council (played by Samuel Jackson ) watches the woman walk by. She ends up walking to a hospital. Her hands are covered with blood.
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Detective Council arrests Rafik (played by Fly Williams III), but then he allows him to get away, in order to respond to a call about a victim (Brenda) at the hospital. She says she was carjacked. Det. Council does not believe her story. He asks her if she was buying drugs. She says no. She says her brother Danny Martin (played by Ron Eldard) is a police officer. She breaks down. She tells him her four-year old son was in the back seat of the car. Detective Council has an asthma attack. Detective Martin arrives at the hospital. Martin works for the rich white area next to the bad black area where the projects are located. Brenda has a hallucination where she sees her son sitting in a chair in the emergency room. Council watches her strange behavior. When she looks again, the child is gone. She collapses.
The white police from the nearby Gannon area lock down the black Armstrong projects. One project resident jumps out the window to avoid arrest. The police from the different precincts fight with each other. The crowd is ready to riot. Brenda talks with the other women she works with at the projects, who are all black. The try to console her. Det. Council takes her home. While she is in the bathroom, he searches the house. He does not find anything unusual. He gets Felecia (played by Aunjanue Ellis) to watch over Brenda. Felecia tells him nobody in the projects would hurt Brenda, because she is respected for the work she does with the children in the day care at the projects.
Council leaves in his car. He is followed by another car. He stops to talk with them. The woman driving is Karen Collucci (played by Edie Falco) of the “Friends of Kent”, which is a group who looks for missing children. She offers to help, but he refuses.
When Council gets back to Brenda's home, she is being roughly interrogated by her brother, police officer Martin. He demands to know from her if she is using again. Council takes her back to the Armstrong projects to see what she can recall about the incident. She puts on headphones to avoid hearing the screaming crowd. She questions him why the police are doing all this stuff to the projects. Council asks Brenda if she killed her son. She makes a very emotional argument about how much she loved her son, how he saved her from her drug problem, and there is no way she could harm her son. Council tells her he will not stop until he finds out what happened to her son. He shows her out the window the police are arresting people in the projects. He tries to get her to admit anything which could help him. She almost tells him, but stops short of saying anything. Council learns Brenda came to the day care the day before, but did not bring her son with her. She told the other staffer her son was sick. Council is surprised to hear this, since she told him she cannot afford a baby sitter. They arrest Rafik for the carjacking. Martin beats up Rafik in the police station. They are observed doing this by women from the projects. Council attempts to intervene, but he is knocked down. Council tells Martin he thinks Brenda is lying.
Council meets with Collucci to get her help with the case. Collucci meets with Brenda. She tells Brenda they think if the child was still alive, the best place to look for him would be a place called “Freedomland” which is an old children's hospital, shut down in the fifties. A huge group of volunteers assemble to help with the search. More than one hundred come to help. They walk in line checking every inch of the land surrounding the abandoned hospital, then they check the rundown hospital buildings. Collucci asks Brenda to nod her head yes or no if Brenda knows her son is dead. Brenda admits her son is dead. She tells them they are in the wrong park. She admits she left her son alone. He drank a bottle of cough syrup and died while she was not home. They go to another place. The find a grave covered in heavy stones. They are too heavy for Brenda to lift them. Brenda admits she asked Felecia's boyfriend Billy (played by Anthony Mackie) to help her dig the grave. Back at the police precinct, she admits she had an affair with Billy. When Billy came over she would put her son to sleep using cough syrup. Once the child fell asleep she would go out. One night her son told Brenda he did not want to be left alone. He tells her she will be sorry if she goes. She only goes downstairs to be with Billy and learns the affairs is over. They don't go out. When she comes back upstairs, the child has taken a full bottle of cough syrup and he is dead. She says she put her hand in something wet and remembers a smell. Then she wandered outside until she reached the park, where she dug a shallow grave with her bare hands, She said she called Billy and Billy helped bring the body and he must have put the stones to make it proper. She says the next night she made up the story about the carjacking. When Det. Council charges her with murder and records the process, she goes berserk, smashing herself to the wall. They handcuff her and it takes four other police to subdue her. Billy is also arrested. Armstrong projects breaks out into a full-on riot. Fires are set everywhere in the neighborhood. A massive police riot force is called to respond. Rafik starts the fight with the riot squad. Council tries to stop as much as he can. Council is hit in the head with a Billy club by one of the police who does not see his face.
Later, the court judge tells Brenda she was charged with manslaughter in the death of her son. Council goes to see Brenda in the mental hospital where they have her on suicide watch. He tells her his son is in jail for armed robbery. He tells her she still has a chance and there is a lot she can do to redeem herself by helping other women and children. He sees his son in prison and they have a close bond developing. Lots of flowers and toys are left in the park where the child's body was buried. Council goes with another policeman to visit the site. Council sees Felecia there and when she asks him, he tells her Billy had nothing to do with hurting the child. Callucci is there having helped solve another case of a missing child, in memory of her own child who is still missing.
Best part of story, including ending:
This movie examines racial tension, neglectful parenting, troubled children, confused adults, and it is all very sad.
Best scene in story:
The scene I like the best is when the woman Callucci gets Brenda to break down and admit she knows her child is dead and where the body is buried. It is a very emotional moment in the film.
Opinion about the main character:
I was not comfortable with the main character Brenda getting off so easily for what she did. I thought her punishment should have been more severe.