Back in the mid-’70s, Bob Dylan hauled out his instant-classic protest anthem “Hurricane,” chronicling Rubin Carter, “the man the authorities came to blame.” Dylan’s song didn’t seem to make much difference, because Carter — the former prizefighter given a triple life sentence for murders he didn’t commit — didn’t win his freedom until a good decade later, in 1985. More than a decade after that, we have the biopic The Hurricane, which wouldn’t have done Carter’s case much good either, if it had been released when he was still doing time in New Jersey. This is yet another guilty-white-liberal epic (it even provides three guilty white liberals onscreen for guilty white liberals to identify with) that takes the daring stance that racism is bad. Watching a well-intentioned but inert movie like The Hurricane, you understand why Spike Lee once said that black filmmakers are best equipped to tell black stories. For one thing, they aren’t compelled by white liberal guilt to pussyfoot around their subjects. Spike Lee, in Malcolm X, hardly shied away from Malcolm’s less noble days.
The Rubin Carter we see in The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison from a script by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, is more or less idealized. Here and there we see flashes of the aggression and barely tamed violence that made Carter a ferocious boxer who made a habit of slashing down his rivals in the first round. But of course this is all due to growing up black in a racist society (what of the black people who grew up the same way but didn’t have a violent streak?). Carter even has a white nemesis, a foul detective (Dan Hedaya, glowering as if he were still playing Nixon) who fixates on the 11-year-old Carter and keeps turning up to drag him off to jail for trumped-up reasons. This detective seems to have nothing else to do except haunt Rubin Carter; it’s as if all the racism in the world were concentrated into this one man. For a long time, the only white people Carter meets are racists, betrayers (a white journalist prints an ill-advised off-the-record comment Carter makes about wanting to shoot himself some redneck cops), or perverts (Carter’s first arrest, the movie tells us, is for stabbing a white pedophile who preys on black boys).
In prison, oddly enough, Carter meets his first actual nice white person, a sympathetic guard (Clancy Brown, in a mirror image of the hateful guard he played in The Shawshank Redemption) who scarcely seems to age over the course of 20 years or so. The guard feels about as real as anyone else in the heavily fictionalized movie, which is to say, not very. Carter wrestles with his inner demons for a while, then settles down to write his memoir The 16th Round, which is apparently published with a big splash — we see an entire bookstore-window display full of copies. (Would a publishing house actually do that for an author whose innocence was still in doubt, and who clearly wasn’t going to be available for a book tour? Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Rubin Carter of the ’90s, didn’t get anything like that sort of treatment with his books.) After a while the splash calms down to a ripple — though the movie doesn’t tell us this, a lot of the celebrities who championed Carter in the ’70s (including Bob Dylan) eventually lost interest — and, seven years later, a rumpled copy of the hardcover turns up at a library book sale in Canada.
As luck would have it, the book finds its way into the hands of a black teenager (Vicellous Reon Shannon), who has been saved from illiteracy and the ghetto by three white Canadians (Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber, and John Hannah) who home-school him in preparation for college. The Canadians are pretty insufferable, bordering on condescending (Unger, chain-smoking her way through the movie, provides the only spark of frazzled humanity; the other two are like conscientious guidance counselors). The black kid devours the book, then gets his Canadian friends interested in Carter’s case. For simplifying purposes, the movie tells us that this quartet were the only people with the determination and know-how to find crucial bits of exculpating evidence and get Carter’s case heard — even though two juries had found him guilty. For his part, Carter goes back and forth, accepting their help, then rejecting it because he needs to accept the reality of lifelong imprisonment, then coming around again.
Denzel Washington would seem well-equipped for the role of Rubin Carter; maybe too well-equipped — we’ve been down this road with him a few times before. After Steven Biko, Malcolm X, Trip the soldier in Glory, and now Rubin Carter, how many more icons of black endurance in the face of white bigotry can he play? Washington is still too young and vital an actor to let himself be enshrined in nobility. I’m not asking for more meaningless crap like Ricochet or Virtuosity, but can’t someone put him in a romantic comedy? Millions of women must be dying to see him do something other than suffer and persevere. Washington is strong as usual, right down to his physique, which seems whittled down to its essentials. But most of his big moments here seem calibrated to win an Oscar. An easy-going, light-hearted, reasonably intelligent entertainment like The Mighty Quinn, from 1989, or even another Easy Rawlins noir like Devil with a Blue Dress, might save this actor from calcifying into an uplift-the-race statuette.
The movie itself is startlingly inept coming from a generally accomplished director like Norman Jewison. We’re frequently confused as to where and when we are in the film’s tangled flashback scheme, and for no apparent reason other than, perhaps, to evoke Raging Bull, all of Carter’s boxing matches are shot in black and white. It sparks an unhelpful comparison (the boxing scenes are nothing special) and leads us to believe at first that the flashbacks will be in black and white, when in fact all the flashbacks outside the ring are in color, like the present-day scenes.
One other element of the film stuck in my craw: Rubin Carter wasn’t the only man the authorities came to blame — another man, John Artis, was in the car with him and got the same triple-life sentence. But because he wasn’t a famous boxer, didn’t write a book, didn’t have Bob Dylan writing a song about him, and wasn’t destined to be played by Denzel Washington in a holiday-season biopic, apparently nobody cared about springing his obscure black ass. The movie doesn’t seem to care, either; after Artis is sentenced, we neither see him nor hear another syllable about him until an end-title card informs us that he, too, was freed from jail — the point being that if Rubin Carter was innocent, then, oh yeah, the guy riding with him was innocent, too. It’s the afterthought quality of the film’s treatment of John Artis (whose life was no less senselessly ripped apart) that pushed my apathy toward The Hurricane into downright irritation. It makes you think about the possible thousands of unjustly imprisoned black men (or, hell, any color men) who aren’t warmed by the good intentions of celebrities, Canadians, or movie directors.