|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 11 July 2000|
Sadly, the annals of U.S. legal history contain a large number of true-life tales of innocent people in general, and African-American men in particular, sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. What sets the story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter part is not so much that, prior to his incarceration, he was a world-champion boxer (hence the "Hurricane" nickname), nor that his case attracted an unusual amount of celebrity attention, nor even that he survived 19 years in jail without losing his mind, although all of these aspects are certainly notable. The most mind-boggling element in Carter’s complicated road to freedom is something that strikes us as necessarily true – because it’s just too weird for anybody to invent.
While screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon have taken a number of liberties with the facts for purposes of dramatic emphasis and condensation, the gist of "Hurricane" really happened. Carter overcame a hair-raising youth (much of it spent in juvenile hall) to become a boxing champ while in the armed forces and later a hero in the professional ring. In the ‘60s, this didn’t sit well with some racist white sports fans. In 1966, Carter (Denzel Washington) and young fan John Artis (Garland Whit) leave a nightclub together and are pulled over by the police. Three people have been shot to death in a bar. Carter and Artis are eventually convicted of the murders. A second trial results in a second set of convictions. Carter orders his loving wife (Debbi Morgan) to divorce him and concentrates on toughing himself up to face life imprisonment. He does, however, pen an autobiography, "The 16th Round." Despite a lot of famous supporters – Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy pen the protest ballad "Hurricane" (featured prominently on the soundtrack) to get the word out – Carter remains incarcerated.
So far, tragic, heinously unjust but also unsurprising. Then a used copy of "The 16th Round" is purchased by 16-year-old Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a bright but nearly illiterate African-American youth from Brooklyn who is being tutored by a houseful of well-intentioned white adults (John Hannah, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber) in Canada. Lesra is so blown away by the book – the first he’s read – that he writes Carter a fan letter. Carter, who has been diligently trying to cut himself off from any temptations offered by the outside world, nevertheless replies. Lesra is moved to visit Carter in prison and is then so inspired by the man that he persuades his friends in Canada to effectively suspend their own lives and move down to the U.S. until they can get the prisoner’s conviction overturned.
Director Norman Jewison and the screenwriters, working from "The 16th Round" and the book "Lazarus and the Hurrican" by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton (played in the film by Schreiber and Hannah, respectively) have crafted a film that gathers dramatic momentum as it barrels forward. A good part of "The Hurricane’s" force comes from Washington’s magnetic focus. The actor does a superb job of portraying a man who constantly reshapes himself in order to be able to face the world, coming closest to breaking when he must allow himself to hope. Washington also moves persuasively and authoritatively in the boxing sequences.
Picture quality is sharp throughout, both in the color sequences taking place in the main portions of the story and the black-and-white boxing footage. The soundtrack is liberally laced with potent songs that comment intelligently on the action, although they are not always mixed through the speakers for maximum 5.1 impact. For instance, Dylan’s punchy "Hurricane" resides in the center and mains whenever it appears. However, the film makes fine use of surround in ambient sound in scenes. Chapter 1 plants us in the middle of a volatile crowd at a boxing match, with people shouting before and behind us, then gives us very realistic prison alarms. Chapter 5, recreating a club atmosphere, has lifelike whispers of patrons in the rears while we’re serenaded with smoky blues in the mains. Chapter 8 gives us precisely calibrated ringing phones in the rears to suggest the dimensions of a police station, while Chapter 16 ups this by giving us enough distant street noise in the rears to suggest our exact position in relation to several city blocks – a truly enveloping effect.
The audio commentary track from director Jewison is slow and thoughtful, filling in a few blanks (like just who the Canadians really were). The commentary track can be accessed in both the Languages and Special Features menus. Jewison also provides onscreen introductions, rather than simultaneous audio commentary, for a handful of deleted scenes, all of which are so dramatic that we can understand his general regret at having to cut them. The DVD also comes with a "making-of" featurette.
Although many significant details of "The Hurricane" part company with reality – for instance, there was no single evil cop dogging Carter’s steps from childhood onward – the parts concerning Carter and Martin and primarily true. The interaction between Washington and Shannon as his young admirer by all rights ought to be overly sentimental, but the scenes are played with such fervor by Shannon and such paternal tenderness by Washington that they wind up being highly affecting.
There are moments with the filmmakers stack the deck a bit obviously, but for the most part, the performances, the charged atmosphere and the strange-but-true aspects of its tale elevate "The Hurricane" to a level of real power.