The Hurricane (1999)

Denzel WashingtonCast: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Unger, John Hannah, Liev Schreiber, Dan Hedaya, Clancy Brown, David Paymer, Rod Steiger, Debbi Morgan, Garland Whitt.
Music: Pete Anthony (conductor and orchestrator), Jon Kull (orchestrator)
Cinematography: Roger Deakins.
Producers: Armyan Bernstein, Norman Jewison, John Ketcham.
Writers: Armyan Bernstein & Dan Gordon, from the memoir The 16th Round by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and the book Lazarus and the Hurricane by Sam Chaiton & Terry Swinton.
Director: Norman Jewison.

Grade: B

Review by Dana Knowles.

The HurricaneThe story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter is a quintessential tale of American racism and the profoundly blithe institutional injustice that haunts our past and--astonishingly--still informs our present to a great degree. Though aspects of this film have the ring of familiarity, it's still a story worth telling and hearing. Because it happened... to a real man in the real world in a real country that prides itself on being the bastion of freedom and justice in that larger world. Just as there are never going to be too many ways to shed light on Germany's decimation of European Jews, there will never be too many ways to shed light on the tyranny that has been fostered by our own tradition of racial bigotry and the ignorance and apathy that allow it to prevail. Destroying innocent men and women one at a time is no less a crime against humanity. This is the story of one man's destruction, his fight for spiritual survival, his unquenchable desire for justice, and the means by which he came to find a measure of peace and personal resurrection.

Rubin Carter was a rising star in the boxing world whose life was irrevocably shattered when he (along with a young friend) was framed for a mass killing that he did not commit. The Hurricane sets up the circumstances surrounding his arrest and incarceration in a series of scenes that unfold like twin dreamstates, one too euphorically mythic to be true, the other too nightmarishly horrific to be true. Both were equally true, as it turns out. Carter was a poor kid from New Jersey, running with a crowd of similarly poor kids, and committing the sorts of petty crimes (shoplifting, etc.) that all kids--rich and poor--are wont to do. One day, while fleeing the scene of their most recent act of pilfering, he and his buddies are approached by a well-dressed white man. When the man begins to show overtly sexual intentions toward one of the boys, Rubin instigates a violent defense that allows the other boys to flee but results in his own arrest. From this incident, he is ultimately incarcerated at a juvenile facility. But it is in the course of the investigation that the seeds of his eventual destruction are sown. A local cop (Dan Hedaya)--appalled by Rubin's audacity in attacking this bastion of the white community--targets him for a lifetime, developing a level of personal hatred that will drive him to destroy Rubin when the opportunity arises.

Upon his release from youthful incarceration, Carter joins the military. And upon his release from military service, he meets and marries a local beauty (Debbi Morgan). All is well in his world, and it's about to get even better. As he pursues a boxing career, his grit and his gifts emerge, resulting in rapid success and local celebrity. It's the American Dream in a nutshell. And while rising out of poverty and into affluence and respectability by the toil of his own efforts, Carter makes for a tremendously sympathetic and root-worthy movie hero. He's set, or so it seems, to live out that dream. When he climbs into the passenger seat of his expensive car to head home after a party, he is unwittingly on his way toward a nightmare that will last for decades. Unbeknownst to him, a brutal mass murder has happened at a nearby bar, and he's about to be accused of doing it. When he and his pal are pulled over, he's incredulous. When witness after witness says he was not the killer, he's sure that this indignity will soon pass. But it doesn't. Because the cop in charge is the man with a grudge he's been waiting to satisfy. Somehow, Carter's arrested anyway. And somehow, the witnesses change their minds during the trial. And somehow, he ends up trapped in a tiny cell in a state prison, a convicted murderer sentenced to life.

The first two thirds of the film is full of very powerful and compelling stuff. Jewison seems inspired beyond his natural state, delving into artful stylishness like a maverick young filmmaker might. The images pulse with energy. The structure is quirky and tense as he plays around with chronology, skipping back and forth between the impending doom of the arrest and the story that precedes it, effectively underlining the degree to which the rug will soon be pulled out from under this rising star. Yes, some of it is derivative... the boxing segments mimic Raging Bull, for instance, but it still works. And it's sort of a kick to watch such a reliably-conventional filmmaker push himself. By the time Carter lands in prison, we're hooked into his story on a personal level. We share his outrage, as well as his sense of powerlessness. But most of all, we just can't quite believe that something like this could happen. And yet it did. And does.

Denzel Washington is an international treasure, and he brings every ounce of his astonishing charisma and his exquisite craft to the role of Carter. There is a key scene in this film that would likely have played as unbearably hokey in the hands of almost any other actor. Carter has been placed in solitary confinement in "the hole", a dark, dank, disturbingly creepy cell in the depths of the prison. During his stay there, he wrestles with the many different aspects of his own state of mind, from rage to desperation and all points in between. As staged, Washington plays these states of mind as separate characters sharing the cell, arguing amongst themselves, each fighting for full control of his consciousness. The sequence is nothing less than a personal tour de force for Washington, so powerfully rendered that it resonates beyond the body of the film and lodges permanently in memory. And though this sequence serves Carter's story specifically, for me it rose above that precise representation and stood as a harrowing portrayal of the basic human anguish that would characterize such a moment for any man or woman. For this scene alone, Washington's virtually certain to be a major contender for accolades and awards. Happily, for both the film and his fans, it's merely the high point in a performance that is uniformly complex and enthralling.

This battle within Carter is the cornerstone of the drama at the heart of the drama he's been thrust into. Fiercely proud and unwaveringly indignant, he survives by refusing to give his captors any power over him beyond his basic incarceration. He cuts ties to the outside world and refuses to leave his cell except for the purpose of showering. Having eliminated all elements of life beyond the cell, he eliminates their power to deny him anything. It's a heavy price to pay, however, and the extremity of that cost becomes more clear to Carter when he is contacted by Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a young man in Canada who has read--and been deeply moved by--his book. They strike up a relationship via written correspondence, ultimately meeting when Lesra comes to the prison to meet Rubin one-on-one. Lesra's unshakable faith in his innocence cuts through Carter's steely resolve to remain unattached to the outside world. And as their relationship progresses, it becomes clear that Lesra may truly have the power to rescue him, if not from the walls of this prison, then perhaps from the self-imposed emotional exile he's embraced as a lifeline. But that fact itself is threatening, and the film makes a compelling case for why Carter fears this burgeoning attachment to Lesra and the light he brings to his world. It's this quandary--this terrifying opportunity to care and be cared for--that gives Carter's story depth beyond the sympathy we would inherently feel for any man in his dreadful circumstances. The fact that he is wise enough to know what a huge risk he may be taking simply by allowing himself to care or to retain hope brings the cruelty of his fate into stark relief. Washington's carefully rendered portrait of a man's struggle to retain his will to survive spiritually as well as physically is the element that allows any sense of The Hurricane's narrative familiarity to become mostly moot. And that's no easy task, either, because the last third of the film fails to maintain the edge and energy of what comes before.

Director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier's Story, Moonstruck) is well known for his many forays into the realm of socially conscious filmmaking. In his heyday, he tackled racism with regularity, seeking to give a voice and a face to the full-bodied, non-white humanity so routinely held from view by mainstream Hollywood entertainment vehicles. While never a terribly compelling or gifted visual stylist, Jewison did manage to evoke a sense of complex social dynamics and rich characterizations via the strong performances of his actors and reasonably good storytelling. With The Hurricane, he's back on his natural turf, both for better and for worse. The "for better" part is his dogged conviction that some stories really deserve to be told, and that this is one of them. The "for worse" part is that he is--after all--Norman Jewison, an old-school filmmaker whose bag of tricks is a mite rusty and dusty for our times. Despite his efforts in the earlier portions of the film, Jewison eventually wanders back to his own well-trod, glaringly conventional turf.

Washington and Reon ShannonOnce The Hurricane shifts gears to follow the efforts of Lesra and his three white "mentors" (Deborah Unger, John Hannah, Liev Schreiber) to secure Carter's release from prison, the film evolves into a more run-of-the-mill triumph of justice piece, culminating in the sorts of scenes that felt old-fashioned at least a decade ago. Part of the problem with this segment is that the adults among these saviors aren't fully fleshed-out as characters. They seem a bit odd in their immediate leap into a difficult and life-altering fray, and the minimal-at-best establishment of their characters as off-kilter non-conformists isn't quite enough to make them seem real. We root for them, of course, because they're on our side. But (despite their foundation in reality) they seem like pure movie characters, riding in on their steeds to save the day. Additionally, the courtroom scenes toward the end have all the subtlety of outtakes from Jewison's ...And Justice for All. And no, I don't mean that as a compliment.

There are other disquieting aspects of the film--mostly omissions--which were perhaps necessitated by real concerns about running time, but are no less bothersome for that. The disappearance of Carter's wife and family and friends with no follow-up on their own struggles stuck out to me as a loose thread. As did the post-arrest experiences of his young friend, who--after all--suffered the same sort of injustice that Carter did. He is mentioned honorably in passing toward the end of the film, but I found myself wondering about him with some regularity throughout. Sometimes a story has too much story to tell, and this may be one of those times. But I wished for more on both of these fronts, and was disappointed that they were left unexplored. Still, it's a testament to how good most of the film is--and to how great Washington is--that its omissions and its fizzling toward the end never threaten to kill the movie itself. The fact is, the most important story has already been told by the time they uncover the evidence that proves him innocent and we reach the courtroom that recognizes that evidence. That story is the story of Carter's ordeal and his willful resurrection through the faith of one young man who refuses to allow him to give up hope. In many ways, the details of the process by which he is ultimately set free are an extended post-script--information we're happy to receive, but less crucial than the events that lead up to his attaining actual release from prison. What we yearn for most is for Carter to come back to life... to prevail over his horrendous fate by having the courage to risk another loss. Which he does, and poignantly so. As powerful and substantial as they are, vindication and physical freedom pale by comparison, particularly when portrayed with so little narrative freshness. Inadvertent as it may be, The Hurricane makes this point compellingly at its own expense.  And thus, its failures are mostly forgivable.

Review © December 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Universal. All Rights Reserved.

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