By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
“The Hurricane,” directed by Norman Jewison. Written by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon. Starring Denzel Washington.
“The Hurricane,” the movie about Black prize fighter and prisoner Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, is a political event. Almost never does Hollywood venture to portray the life of a political rebel in a sympathetic manner. In this case, the film version of how Carter was railroaded to prison on false charges of a triple murder-and finally freed after a courageous struggle of 19 years-is inspiring.
Some critics for the big-business newspapers have panned the film for “preaching on a soapbox” to its audience. And yet, it is precisely the political aspects of Hurricane’s story-which still resonate today in cases like that of Mumia Abu-Jamal-that enable the film to rise above the level of a typical Hollywood tear-jerker.
Unfortunately, the film, billed as “a triumphant true story,” over-simplifies and distorts the events of Hurricane Carter’s life.
Although Denzel Washington gives an intelligent performance as Hurricane, his character is only rarely able to break out of the two-dimensional boundaries of the script. We are given little clue of how a young “tough guy” can, after spending half his lifetime in prison, attain what appears on the screen to be a buddha-like serenity-spouting platitudes like “love will set me free.”
Carter’s real life was much more rich and complex. The film fails, for example, to explain how Hurricane Carter was radicalized before his incarceration through his involvement in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. He was also inspired by the freedom struggle in South Africa, which he visited for two prize fights in 1965 and 1966.
As a result, Carter-like other prominent Black activists-fell under constant police surveillance. In his hometown of Patterson, N.J., Carter was routinely stopped and taken in by the police on traffic violations and other false charges, and he met similar harassment by cops in other cities where he was scheduled to fight.
Even quite recently, when Denzel Washington visited Philadelphia, the actor was informed by the Fraternal Order of Police in that city that they loved his performance but “hate Hurricane Carter.” Of course, the police realize that Hurricane is now known far and wide as a spokesperson for the rights of prisoners and that he is a strong defender of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whom the Philadelphia cops consider to be their arch-nemesis.
The film takes great license in blaming Hurricane’s incarceration virtually entirely on one cop’s vendetta against him.
This “rogue cop” version is challenged by Selwyn Raab of The New York Times, who first investigated the case in the 1970s. He writes: “The convictions [of Carter and his codefendent, John Artis] were obtained not by a lone, malevolent investigator but by a network of detectives, prosecutors, and judges who countenanced the suppression and tainting of evidence and the injection of racial bias into the courtroom.” (The New York Times, Dec. 28, 1999.)
This real story of an entire penal system routinely sending defendants to prison simply for the “crime” of being Black is much more disturbing than the Hollywood version of Carter’s frame-up conviction.
Key people in Carter’s defense are likewise ignored in the film. Carter’s wife disappears from view halfway through the movie, and the team of lawyers-who worked for a decade without payment-are relegated to secondary status. But according to Raab, “all the essential evidence concerning constitutional violations, manipulated witnesses, and prosecutional misconduct was found by defense lawyers,” not by a band of super-sleuths from Toronto.
Raab also points out that “virtually obliterated in the film version is the vital role played by John Artis, Mr. Carter’s codefendant, who was also wrongly convicted and imprisoned for 15 years.” Artis distinguished himself when he defiantly rejected an offer to avoid a long prison sentence by falsely incriminating Carter.
Whatever good intentions the director, Norman Jewison, and others connected with “The Hurricane” might have had, Raab concludes, the film “falls into the category of history contorted for dramatic effect.” We would only add that this Hollywood drama is far less spellbinding than the real history of Carter and his times.
See the film by all means. But also read Hurricane Carter’s story as he tells it, in his 1974 book, “The 16th Round,” and his recent biography, “Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter.”