Another take on "The Hurricane" featuring Denzel: Whose History Is It?

Movie Director Norman Jewison
Reviewer: Ron Jacobs

The Hurricane is the story of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's 1966 arrest, false conviction and subsequent imprisonment on triple murder charges, and the decades long struggle to free him and the other man falsely convicted and sent up with Carter (John Artis). Carter grew up in a working-class family in Paterson, New Jersey. When he was eleven, he stabbed a white man who was making sexual advances to his friends and ended up in a reformatory. He escaped from the reformatory eight years later after being denied his release despite a good behavior record. He then joined the service and began boxing. His boxing instructor also gave Carter an interest in Islam, books and intellectual learning. After his enlistment was up, Carter returned to Paterson, found work and lived a relatively quiet life until he was arrested on charges stemming from his escape from the reformatory. He was sent back to prison and began to train as a boxer in earnest. Upon his release, he began to box professionally and stunned the boxing world with his power and speed, quickly racking up a number of impressive victories.

He also began to acquire enemies because of his statements supporting the civil rights movement and black liberation movements. It was Carter's belief from the beginning that these statements played a role in certain boxing decisions that went against him despite an overwhelming consensus that he had won these fights and were primary motivations in his arrest and conviction on the murder charges.

The film is not just the story of Carter, however. It is also the story of the struggle that eventually freed him. It was a battle waged by a young African-American man schooled by and living with three Canadians. This was after the mass movement of the mid-1970s to free Hurricane perhaps best symbolized by Bob Dylan's song "Hurricane" had faltered. The young man, named Lezra Martin, picked up Hurricane's autobiography The Sixteenth Round at a used book sale and can not put the book down. He begins correspondence with Carter and eventually convinces his guardians of Carter's innocence. The four move to New Jersey and began a long investigation that eventually results in Carter's freedom. The film occasionally teeters toward the presentation of justice in these United States as ultimately fair, but the facts of Carter's case make it impossible for Hollywood to pull off such an endeavor. Rubin's eventual freedom after almost twenty years proves the exception, not the rule. This is where the much-criticized character of the corrupt, racist cop comes in. The film has been criticized for its fictionalizing of Carter's story with some critics observing that the story is powerful enough without fictionalization. While this is certainly true, it is this viewer's perception that the fictionalization plays an essential role in the movie's politics. Specifically, the script has been criticized for its enhancement of the role this policeman played in Carter's life even though he is not, as some have suggested, entirely fictional. This character is not meant to be perceived literally. His presence in the film is metaphorical. He represents the American system of justice and the role it plays in oppressing Black people in this country. When this cop tells Carter that Hurricane still owes him time after arresting him on the aforementioned escape charges, this policeman is the slave master telling all African-Americans that they still owe time.

Although there are a number of great performances here, this film is Denzel Washington's. His portrayal of Hurricane Carter captures the pure emotion of the story without shortchanging the political and ethical aspects. In essence, Washington becomes Carter for the duration of the film. Carter's story is an ugly tale of racism and oppression yet the movie is a work of beauty.

However, the "Hurricane" is more than the story of a man's oppression. It is also the tale of how a human can resist that oppression--an oppression that is greater yet more petty than any individual. It is the story of the hope of youth and the naivete from which that hope springs. Of course, as an individual who does what he can in the struggle to obtain a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal and others unjustly in prison, it was impossible not to draw parallels between the story of Hurricane and the tales of those currently wrongly imprisoned. This makes Hurricane's story even more important. It is a story that needs to be told and re-told until all those who have been falsely imprisoned are released.

Jacobs is based in Burlington, Vermont.