Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Hurricane, The (1999) ***

Directed by Norman Jewison; written by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, based on "The 16th Round" (1974) autobiography by Hurricane Carter, and on "Lazarus and the Hurricane" (1991) by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton. Photography, Roger Philip Rosenberg. Music, Christopher Young. Produced by Bernstein, John Ketcham and Jewison. Cast: Denzel Washington (Rubin Carter), John Hannah (Terry), Deborah Kara Unger (Lisa), Liev Schreiber (Sam), Vicellous Reon Shannon (Lesra), David Paymer (Myron Beldock), Dan Hedaya (Della Pesca), Harris Yulin (Leon Friedman), Garland Whitt (John Artis), Rod Steiger (Federal Judge Sarokin). A Universal release. 146 minutes. R (physical and psychological violence)

Several sources list this movie as 125 minutes long. The theater I saw it in says 146, as does the site of its chain. I had intended to use my chronometer, but I was engrossed enough to forget doing this.

I am also somewhat baffled by the hullabaloo raised by "The Hurricane," about historical inexactitudes and omissions. The movie falls in the genre of biopics. There's no more fanciful type than this, barring total fantasies like Hercules fighting the Incas. Biopics are notoriously manipulated, falsified, misleading and wrong. Think of films from great (even prize-winning) to junky, about figures ranging from Attila to Zola Napoleon, Zapata, Pasteur, Hitler, Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Nelson, erdinand de Lesseps, Queen Victoria, Buffalo Bill, Juarez, Mata Hari, Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, Hemingway and so on...

In fact, even with the best, most scholarly and historical intentions, the most faithful stories of a life have to have cuts, simplifications, amalgamations or condensations when they are turned into films.

The fact remains that the story of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter has been made into a very good, very moving, very well-acted, very well-produced movie. It follows the life of a black boy who is sent to reformatory for pulling a knife on a white, influential local who is a child molester. The kid spends years in that prison, eventually escapes, joins the Army, becomes its lightweight champion abroad, returns home, becomes a middleweight contender. Two men enter a New Jersey bar and gun down three people (white). Carter, then 29 is arrested along with his 21-year old admirer John Artis (black). They are falsely accused and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. They spent 19 years in prison.

Claiming his innocence, Carter set to prove it from his cell. As played by the extraordinary Denzel Washington, he is a mixture of fascinating personalities that complement one another: the rebel, the good convict, the man in despair, the man who educates himself, the writer of his autobiography "The 16th Round" published in 1974 while he was still in jail. It is this book that comes to the attention of Lesra, a 15-year old African-American boy whom some Canadian activists and commune-dwellers in Toronto had rescued from a bad family environment and "adopted" so as to prepare him for high school.

Lesra's fascination for Rubin Carter communicates to his hosts. These are Sam, Terry and Lisa, the prettiest chain-smoker in film history. They dedicate themselves to proving Rubin innocent, and eventually succeed.

The film has superior photography, and acting by Washington and by Vicellous Reon Shannon (Lesra) who is already an experienced actor and who is in reality far older than what he seems to be. The choice of music is one of the best, including the song "Hurricane" by Bob Dylan. Dylan was one of the defenders of Rubin's, along with many other champions, celebrities and non-celebrities, but it would seem that it was only the Canadian friends who showed enough staying power to finish the job.

"The Hurricane" is a grab-your-heartstrings, moving motion picture, even a two-handkerchief work. Its director, Norman Jewison, is a Canadian and an old "liberal" (a nice word that has been made into a pox by the Right). His credits include themes of discrimination, "A Soldier's Story" (about a black army officer) and "In the Heat of the Night"(about a black Philadelphia policeman in the South). He knows his subject.

"The Hurricane" is not without some inventions (over and above the omissions), such as a vengeful cop who is Rubin's nemesis the way Inspector Javert was to Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables." I will not detail them. They are for a good cause. They are also counterbalanced by some discreet touches, e.g. a prison guard who likes Carter, probably believes him, yet shows it silently simply through photographic angles and close-ups.

I disregard, or at least don't get hot under the collar for, several of the objections to the movie's historicity. But one aspect annoyed me: the fact that the three Canadians were unexplored characters. In reality there were several more people in the commune, here reduced to just three, the pro-Rubin activists. But eliminating the others leads to confusion. Are Terry, Lisa and Sam a menage a trois? Can one call three cohabitants a commune? What exactly did the micro-commune do besides taking in Lesra and fighting for Rubin? (We are not told, either, that eventually Lisa and Rubin married, then divorced --but that could be justified as a personal fact that comes after Carter's liberation).

Lacunae, some distortions and all, the film is valid, involving and anti-racist.. Its flaws of omission and commission are characteristic of the arguments of true believers in causes, of political movements, of schools of thought, where the activists draw blanket conclusions. Imperfect, but a fact of life.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel