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Acclaimed director Norman Jewison, whose credits include “In the Heat of the Night”, “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Moonstruck”, had always thought that the story of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was one that had to be told on screen. Two books, Carter’s autobiography “The Sixteenth Round”, and “Lazarus & the Hurricane” form the basis for this triumphant true story of an innocent man’s fight for justice. Carter’s book chronicles his life and persecution. The other is a novel about Hurricane’s relationship with Lesra Martin and his friends who work to free Carter. The passion shown by Denzel Washington in wanting to play the Rubin Carter role ensured something special was in the making.
That it definitely is. “The Hurricane” is an emotion-charged, exhilarating trip through the life of Rubin Carter, a likely world middleweight champion from New Jersey who spent nineteen years behind bars for murders that he didn’t commit. Most people had only heard of Carter through the memorable Bob Dylan song “Hurricane” from 1975. At that stage, Rubin had served a decade of a life sentence. Dylan made an impassioned plea for his freedom.
We learn that Carter had a hell-raising childhood, and was dogged as a youth. He had to confront paedophilia and was sent to juvenile prison after stabbing a prominent white man in self-defence. Detective Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya) put him away through sheer racial bigotry. He was to pursue Carter for his whole life. Rubin found a new life and purpose when he joined the military service. He had married and seemed set for a normal life. But one night, three people are murdered in a New Jersey bar. On doubting evidence and Della Pesca’s determination to “bring him down”, Rubin Carter and John Artis, who just happened to be in the area at another bar, were taken into custody and then convicted by an all-white jury. Despite the efforts of political activists and celebrities, Rubin remained imprisoned.
In the early 1980s a Brooklyn teenager living in Canada, Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon) buys a secondhand copy of Carter’s autobiography and becomes drawn to Carter’s plight. He develops a passion to meet him. With assistance from three people with whom Lesra is living, he writes a letter to Carter. In the blink of an eye, Rubin Carter’s world changes. He agrees to meet Lesra. The relationship that develops between Rubin and Lesra forms the emotional crux of the film. The three Canadians, Sam (Live Schreiber), Terry (John Hannah) and Lisa (Deborah Unger) are a commune-like group of social reformists, and they become affected by this situation. They help Lesra in starting a campaign to force the case back to the courts. Carter, whose interest was solely to survive and learn to do the time, unexpectedly found himself with new champions. It resulted in a final trial where Rubin finally wins his fight.
The screenplay does well with the daunting task of incorporating both books into a cohesive narrative. Jewison has been at his best when making films with a social conscience, and this film is very moving. There are times when the success of certain films depends on one actor’s worth. Denzel Washington is such a person in this instance. He has never delivered a finer performance, and I’ve seen him several times. He plays his character with such a savage ruthlessness but also with a great compassion. It’s an astonishingly stirring acting performance. He takes us step by step from a man who hates white people to someone who allows himself to love, trust and depend on a group of virtual white strangers. He hits all the right notes in tracking Carter’s emotions and attitudes. Though not primarily a boxing film, there are several moments in the ring and Washington makes a convincing fighter.
“The Hurricane” is a film in which I was totally absorbed and overwhelmed by Rubin Carter’s journey. It’s about the power of humanity, and of hope and freedom. It’s a truly moving experience that is a must-see. It’s worth noting the final moments when it brings the story to the present day and the real Rubin Carter appears briefly. We should also remember John Artis, the innocent bystander who spent fifteen years in prison and refused to lie to prosecutors who enticed him with promises of freedom, if he would say that Carter committed the murders. Artis stayed true to himself and Rubin Carter. Carter proclaimed him as his personal hero.