THE HURRICANE (1999) has been playing on Universal’s High Definition channel. It’s an uplifting story about a man hounded by racism and unjustly framed for murders he didn’t commit, who bears his incarceration with dignity and eventually is given justice. Denzel Washington turns in one of the finest portrayals of his career as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a professional boxer who spent over twenty years in prison for murder. While the character is noble and charming, there is also a barely concealed froth of anger and bitterness, mercurial lability, and lethal danger. Washington also carries off the task of showing a man from his late teens to his 50s without difficulty (partly owning to a year of training prior to the role). The supporting cast do a fine job but this is Denzel’s movie every step of the way and the scenes without him seem like a framing device for the real drama that happens when he is on the screen. He was nominated for Best Actor for this role but lost to Kevin Spacey’s astounding performance in American Beauty.
In addition to Washington, the other hero of HURRICANE is the director, Norman Jewison. Jewison is that rare kind of Hollywood director who can do almost any type of material. Coppola bombed his attempts at a musical, Scorsese has only made one left handed attempt at comedy, Ivan Reitman found drama a bit of a stretch.* Yet Jewison has done successful movies in all these genres and several others. A partial list of his films gives you an idea: Other People’s Money, Moonstruck, The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof, And Justice for All, Agnes of God. Even the SF classic ROLLERBALL. HURRICANE isn’t really a departure for him, but just as Denzel Washington brought his best game, this is perhaps the finest job Jewison has ever done (he thought so). There are evocative scenes which rely purely on direction for their narrative force, such as the camera continually returning to the single naked light bulb in the hallway outside Carter’s cell in solitary or the numerous close ups on Washington’s eyes to allow us to read the actor’s emotion. Carter’s retreat into his internal dialogues to protect himself from the lack of human contact in solitary is plainly conveyed without any character ever having to explain it in blatant expositionary dialog. The fight scenes are brief but have a real veracity. In fact, Jewison is able to imbue the entire movie with a kind of verisimilitude that allows us to get involved with the story and the characters.
The writing is also fine, though short of excellent. Despite a little narrative jumble at the beginning, where the scenes jump between three time periods and places, the story is straightforward and the dialog is often witty. However, the script is also the biggest failing of the movie by far. As a rousing tale of a man who is dealt a bad hand by life and overcomes great hardship, it’s fine. As an actual biography of Rubin Carter, it’s full of terrible distortions and outright falsehoods. In their rush to canonize their title character, the writers reduce the tale from true drama to mere melodrama. In the movie, Carter escapes from his juvenile institution and joins the military. Years later he returns home as a veteran who has learned to box while in the service. He is wildly successful but has the World title stolen from him in a blatantly racist decision. He is arrested the night of the championship fight, at the top of his professional career, by a cop pursuing a personal vendetta against him. Never is the audience given any reason to doubt his innocence of the crime of which he was accused. He then spends 30 years behind bars, bending the prison to his will, before a group of advocates unearth evidence that proves the entire case against him was a frame-up.
The problem is that almost all of that is that it is outright lies. Carter escaped from Juvie, but was returned when he was dishonorably discharged from the military after four courts martial in his first 23 months. His loss to Joey Giordello for the title was not even considered to be close by most observers of the fight, let alone a racist robbery (Giordello won a suit for defamation against the filmmakers). And it happened over a year before the arrest. In the time between that title bout and the murders Carter had lost almost half of his fights was no longer considered a contender. The movie makes Carter’s innocence a given, but he was found with a shotgun and pistol in his trunk that matched the weapons used in the crime. The movie goes on to show that he was convicted twice but omits that he was released for four years prior to the second trial and that there were black jurists who voted for his conviction the second time. Or that several people who had testified for him in the first trial recanted their testimony and said that Carter had convinced them to lie. Or that Carter had failed a polygraph prior to the first trial and refused to retake the test prior to the second trial.
Roger Ebert was asked about the incongruity of making a biopic of a possible killer into THE HURRICANE. He reportedly replied that if you wanted to learn about a man’s life from a movie about him you would be just as well to ask his grandmother. Both sources are biased. This is nothing short of the kind of cop-out that allows Hollywood to go on making shitty movies by saying that they are Hollywood and don’t have to bother to get it right. It’s the same kind of arrogance that allows a producer to buy the rights to a classic like I, Robot and then use that title and the author’s name to guild the steaming pile of shit they produced rather than adapting the source material. But that’s just the movie industry’s disdain for the consumer and the fiction they bastardize. Here they are dealing with real people and real events and instead of doing something meaningful they make it into a children’s story.
The ambiguity of real life is lost. Never are the good guys allowed to be anything but good and noble, or the villains anything but evil racists. This has nothing to do with “adapting for the screen”. It’s easy to imagine that the movie would have been far better if the audience had been allowed to make their own judgments about the guilt of Ruben Carter. Denzel Washington tried to bring the ambiguity of the character into his portrayal but that was subverted by the writers attempt to make a simpleminded morality tale rather than an actual biography. Go ahead. Make that movie. But don’t use real people’s names and real events. Any biography, yes- even when it’s a movie, has a certain responsibility to be factual. Just because everything is for sale in Hollywood doesn’t mean that reality is a whore to be purchased and used however you want. Go ahead and see THE HURRICANE, enjoy Denzel’s masterful performance, revel in it’s life affirming message of justice, and then remember that it’s all bullshit and that the only way to be given a fair shake in this world (whether you are guilty or not) is to be a cause celeb of the people with money and power and to fit their agenda. That is the real lesson of THE HURRICANE.
*For those of you wondering. Coppola did ONE FROM THE HEART, Scorsese did THE KING OF COMEDY, and Reitman did LEGAL EAGLES. None of which set the box office or the critics aflame.