Hurricane, The: Norman Jewison’s Political Drama, Starring Denzel Washington

It’s almost impossible to imagine The Hurricane, Norman Jewison’s heartfelt political drama, without Denzel Washington in the lead role of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the black boxer who was wrongly accused of triple murder and sent to prison, where he spent 19 years before being exonerated and released in 1985. In what’s easily his most zealous and fully realized performance since Malcolm X, Washington elevates the earnest, occasionally simplistic narrative, to the level of a genuinely touching moral expose. Inspirational and uplifting in the manner of old-fashioned American sagas about racial injustice, Universal release is most suitable to the spirit of the holiday season, likely to be embraced by both younger and older, black and white, viewers due to its engaging intergenerational and interracial story.

After a decade of mostly directing light commercial fare (the romantic comedy Moonstruck, the trivial January Man and Only You), Jewison goes back to the kind of issue-oriented film with which he established his reputation, the Oscar-winning drama, In the Heat of the Night (1967), And Justice for All (1979), and A Soldier’s Story (1984). However, the emotional impact of this uniquely American story is slightly diminished by the solemn air of the proceedings, particularly in the prolonged jail-set mid-section.

Armyan Bernstein’s and Dab Gordon’s richly detailed script is based upon two books: The Sixteenth Round, by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter himself, and Lazarus and the Hurricane, by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton. If Hurricane doesn’t qualify as a fully fleshed biopicture, it’s a result of its narrative skipping several crucial chapters in its hero’s life and consciously taking some liberties with the facts, particularly in its chronicle of how three students became committed to Carter’s case until they succeeded in getting him out of prison.

The first sequence intercuts between 1963, when middleweight boxer Rubin Carter (Washington) is declared a champ in N.J., and 1973, when Carter is in a Trenton State Prison, angrily protesting that the authorities are after his book, which he perceives as his only chance to get acquitted of the false charges. Brief flashbacks recreate the 1966 murder, in which three people were killed by two gunmen in the Lafayette Bar in Paterson, N.J. This murder led to the arrest of Carter and a young fan, John Artis (Garland Whitt), innocent bystanders who had earlier frequented the scene of the crime. They are brought to the hospital, where one of the wounded victims, who can barely sees, identifies them as the killers under the manipulation of a malevolent cop, Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya).

Cut to Toronto, 7 years later, when a black youth named Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon) picks up Carter’s autobiography out of a pile of books for sale, paying for it 25 cents. In an bizarre and fateful turn of events that would make Kieslowski and his mysterious cinematic puzzles proud, the yarn suggests how a random act of a book purchase can totally change one’s life. Indeed, after reading the book, Lesra, an alienated American teenager, finds direction and purpose for the first time in his life.

A product of poor, illiterate parents, Lesra has been “adopted” by three Canadian students: Terry Swinton (John Hannah), Lisa Peters (Deborah Kara Unger) and Sam Chaiton (Liev Schreiber), who bring him to their bohemian apartment in Toronto. Instinctively convinced of Carter’s innocence, Lesra begin corresponding with the boxer, soon enlisting his social activist guardians to mount a full-time campaign for his release.

The dynamic relationship between Lesra and Carter forms the emotional thrust of the story, with the latter gradually assuming the role of Lesra’s surrogate father. But the bond is mutually rewarding, when Lesra becomes Carter’s only ray of light. Prior to meeting Lesra, Carter had cut himself off from all those around him. In a painful scene, after winning a second trial in which he was again convicted, Carter forces his wife (Debbie Morgan) to divorce him and never visit him again; he can’t even bear to see his little daughter.

The Canadian activists, who lived in a commune-like setting, basically put their lives on hold to fight for Carter, eventually gaining his freedom. The tale emphasizes that the trio of students and Lesra form a unique kind of an extended family. Here, pic shows the emergence of esprit de corps similar to the one in Reversal of Fortune, where Ron Silver’s harvard professor and his students formed a family in trying to save a morally dubious aristocrat (Claus von Bullow). The big difference between the two pictures, however, is that in The Hurricane, the clique fights for the acquittal of an innocent man and is committed to values of the highest order.

Integrated into the proceedings are flashbacks to an incident that occurred when Carter the boy got involved in an act of killing of white man that put him face to face with Della Pesca, a corrupt and villainous cop, whose sole existence, according to this film, seems to be based on a primal, lifelong racist urge to incarcerate Carter.

The weakest scenes are inevitably those describing Carter’s isolation, which becomes his mode of survival in prison, and the exchange of letters between him and Lesra, which are solemnly read. Helmer Jewison can’t dramatize in an interesting way Carter’s spiritualism, how he threw away his law books and began to search within himself, which led to inward meditations and cleansing of his soul.

But Jewison is effective in placing Carter in the broader historical context, which evidenced social unrest and the civil rights movement, perceiving this particular case of injustice as symbolic of the way blacks, especially controversial figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, were (mis)treated by the white establishment. Indeed, in the 1970s, Carter’s plight became a cause celebre, inspiring protests by such luminaries as actress Ellen Burstyn and a popular ballad by Bob Dylan.

Some cynical commentary is offered on the politics of celebs, suggesting that their involvement was all too brief. But whether intentionally or not, the filmmakers end up mythologizing Carter as a noble saint, an approach that may be partly determined by the factual material but also reflects the film’s 60s sensibility. Even so, Hurricane is so intriguingly plotted and so captivatingly acted that it’s easy to overlook its dramatic flaws and overall soft gaze.

Losing over 40 pounds, a trim Washington delivers a soaring, highly intense performance, arguably the richest in his already impressive career, showing ability to inhabit the disparate moods of the epic yarn. While the central figure dominates, all the thesps do well in the same emotionally truthful vein, especially Shannon, as the idealist black youth, and Unger, Schreiber, and Hannah, as the Canadian activists. Only exception is Hedaya, who plays the one-dimensional villain as a figure out of a Greek tragedy.

Production values are good across the board, notably Deakins’ lensing, which mutes the colors when the story gets more somber (in prison) and brings them back for the more upbeat finale.