Screenplay : Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon (based on the novel "The 16th Round" by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and the novel "Lazarus and the Hurricane" by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Denzel Washington (Rubin "Hurricane" Carter), Vicellous Reon Shannon (Lesra), Deborah Kara Unger (Lisa Peters), Liev Schreiber (Sam Chaiton), John Hannah (Terry Swinton), Dan Hedaya (Det. Vincent Della Pesca), Debbi Morgan (Mae Thelma), Clancy Brown (Lt. Jimmy Williams), David Paymer (Myron Bedlock), Harris Yulin (Leon Friedman), Rod Steiger (Judge H. Lee Sorokin), Garland Whitt (John Artis)
"The Hurricane" is a well-intentioned true story of hope and justice that is well-acted enough to overcome its weaknesses. In particular, it is Denzel Washington's extraordinary performance as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a prizefighter who was unjustly convicted of murder in the mid-1960s, that keeps the film afloat. Even when forced to say lines like, "Hate put me in prison. Love's gonna bust me out,"he does it with such force and conviction that he actually transcends the wince-inducing hokiness and the "hey-here's-the-movie's-theme-in-one-sentence" obviousness of the dialogue.
The film opens with a carefully constructed narrative that gives us the details of Hurricane's turbulent childhood growing up in the poor city of Paterson, New Jersey, his ascension to prize-fighting glory as welterweight champion, the circumstances under which he was arrested and ultimately convicted of the slaughter of three patrons in a New Jersey bar, and how he wrote a book about his experience titled "The Sixteenth Round" that was picked up at a used book sale seven years after its publication by a young black teenager named Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon).
All of this takes place in the film's first half-hour, and it is actually a set-up for film's real story, which is the relationship between Hurricane, Lesra, and Lesra'a adoptive Canadian family, a trio of roommates/business partners played by Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber, and John Hannah. Eventually, Lesra and his family move to the United States with the sole intention of working to prove Hurricane's innocence.
"The Hurricane" is much like "In the Name of the Father" (1993) and a long list of other similar films in that it is primarily about a wrongly convicted man trying to clear his name. The film makes it clear from the outset that Hurricane was innocent, and the only reason he was convicted was that a ruthlessly corrupt and racist police investigator named Vincent Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya) suppressed evidence and coerced witnesses into false testimony. Part of the film is a celebration of Hurricane's strength though the hard times, but it is equally an indictment of how racism (both obvious and subtle) has infiltrated America's system of "justice" and rendered it almost impotent.
The best illustration of this is during Hurricane's initial murder trial. Before hearing the verdict, the judge hollowly intones how Hurricane has received a "fair trial" by "a jury of his peers." Not only have we already seen Della Pesca illegally coercing testimony, but during the judge's speech Hurricane glances at the jury box and observes a dozen impeccably dressed, very stodgy-looking white people. The scene is almost played for laughs because we know the trial was rigged and the jury is so obviously removed from Hurricane's true peers, but there is an underlying layer of bitterness to the scene that stings long after it is finished.
Director Norman Jewison has a long history of making social-liberal films of this sort (as a matter of fact, much of his career is like a throwback to the great wave of conscience-liberal social filmmaking in the late 1940s). His resume includes the union saga "F.I.S.T." (1978), the courtroom drama "... And Justice for All" (1979), the racially charged military whodunit "A Solider's Story" (1984), and, of course, the excellent Oscar-winner"In the Heat of the Night" (1967), which pitted Rod Steiger (who makes a cameo as a judge in "The Hurricane") and Sidney Poitier against each other amidst the heat of Southern racism in the late 1960s. Perhaps it is because Jewison has so much experience with films of this nature that it is a bit disappointing when he doesn't take "The Hurricane" to the next level.
In fact, as director, Jewison does a couple of things that hinder the film. For instance, in an attempt to dramatize Hurricane's inner turmoil, he stages a sequence in prison where Hurricane separates into three different versions of himself--his frightened, stuttering child persona, his angry, bitter persona, and his stable, determined persona--who then proceed to argue with one another. On paper, this might sound like a good idea, but despite Denzel Washington's complex performance, the scene feels tacky. Then there's Jewison's aesthetic decision to film all the fight sequences in black and white. There is no sense to this decision, seeing as how the other flashback sequences are in color. Filming the prize fight scenes in black and white does nothing more than invite comparisons to Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" (1980), a comparison in which Jewison is guaranteed to lose.
However, if "The Hurricane" is ever in danger of falling beneath its own noble weight, it is saved by a dynamic performance from Denzel Washington. His performance is all-encompassing, and perhaps his greatest achievement is in invoking Hurricane's weaknesses through his strengths. Washington shows how his character's steely determination is both his greatest asset and his greatest hindrance. Once in prison for three life sentences, Hurricane decides that the only way to survive is to deny himself any desire. He believes that if he doesn't want what is beyond the bars of his prison cell, then his captors cannot defeat him by denying him those things. However, what Lesra and his family eventually show Hurricane is that he is denying himself fundamental human contact, something that everyone needs, especially someone in Hurricane's unfortunate position.
Praise should also be given to Vicellous Reon Shannon, who does a fine job of making Lesra into a fascinating, three-dimensional human being. Lesra's life story is one of great accomplishment, going from an uncertain teenager who could not read to someone so confident that he led the way to freeing a wrongly convicted man from prison. The film is as much about him as it is about Rubin Carter. Unfortunately, "The Hurricane" fails to make the other characters as three-dimensional, most notably the almost unbelievable do-gooder simplicity of Lesra's unconventional Canadian family and, in contrast, the one-note vileness of Della Pesca.
With all the theatrical courtroom drama, violent boxing scenes, and racially charged incidents in "The Hurricane," the best scenes are the simplest. After all, when all the excess is boiled off, this is a film that is primarily about people who find each other. In all his attempts to isolate himself from the world in a determined stance of self-protection, the Hurricane was finally beaten back by a teenager and three white Canadians. The irony of this situation is never ignored, yet the simple beauty of seeing these people meeting and working together despite their circumstances is the film's greatest strength.
©2000 James Kendrick