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Split Decisions

Denzel Washington scores a TKO playing Hurricane Carter, but the movie surrounding him is p.c. flab.

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Ringer: Washington in the title role of Norman Jewison's The Hurricane.  

In its early boxing scenes, The Hurricane shows us a fighter who takes a grim-faced pleasure in pulverizing his opponents. Denzel Washington's Rubin "Hurricane" Carter uses his body as a honed weapon, and his shaved head gives him a scary, projectilelike appearance. Carter's career as a leading middleweight contender was cut short when, in the fall of 1966, three white people were killed by two black gunmen in a Paterson, New Jersey, bar -- leading to his arrest and that of John Artis, a young fan of his, both of whom happened to be riding in a car near the crime scene when the police stopped them. Convicted and sentenced, along with Artis, to three consecutive life terms, Carter spent nearly nineteen years in prison before winning his exoneration and release. The judge who overturned his second trial conviction, played in the movie by Rod Steiger, said that the findings were "based on racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure."

It's a tribute to Washington's performance that, in his many prison scenes, he never lets Carter go all gooey on us. He dropped 45 pounds for the role and worked himself into fighting trim; locked up, agitating for his freedom, his Carter is still a human projectile. Washington makes us understand how someone in prison might need to close himself off from all earthly wants in order to transcend the place that holds him. He also demonstrates the emotional toll on Carter; fortressed inside himself, the prisoner lets almost no light in. The actor's uncompromising work stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film, which has a liberal-humanist slogginess. In an effort to turn Carter's story into a moral triumph of near-mythic proportions, the filmmakers, director Norman Jewison and screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, undercut Washington's fine, feral quality -- his caged heat. To be truly memorable, the rest of the film needed to be as ferocious as its star.

The Hurricane simplifies Carter's odyssey. Instead of fully dramatizing how racism was rampant in the criminal-justice system that convicted him, it opts for a less sweeping indictment. What we get instead is a monomaniacal, partially fictionalized cop, Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), who pursues Carter from the time of his boyhood right up to the final appeal and who is so openly malevolent that he makes Inspector Javert in Les Misérables seem like Officer Joe Bolton. What the movie doesn't probe is how, according to Lazarus and the Hurricane, the book on which the film is partially based, Carter, because of his growing aversion to passive resistance and his friendship with Malcolm X, had already been targeted for harassment by the New Jersey police and the FBI years before his arrest. The context of Carter's militancy is softened for mass consumption.

Della Pesca is balanced out by a trio of white, goody-goody social-activist Canadians (Liev Schreiber, Deborah Kara Unger, and John Hannah), who live commune-style in Toronto with Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), the black, underprivileged Brooklyn boy they have "adopted." Years after Carter's initial conviction, Lesra picks up for a quarter a dog-eared copy of Carter's 1974 autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, and, his life changed, begins corresponding with Carter in prison, enlisting his guardians in a full-scale, and ultimately successful, campaign for the boxer's release. In real life, the three Canadians were nine, and according to Lewis Steel, one of Carter's defense attorneys, writing in the January 3 Nation, "none of the Canadians' investigative efforts played a role in the final outcome." Be that as it may, all this paints a pretty picture: Lesra, Carter's surrogate son, raises his idol Lazarus-style from the dead. The pillars of justice, photographed with stately splendor, vibrate with vindication.

The movie's dogged humorlessness, and its sixties-style cant, don't do justice to all the political crosscurrents in this story. Carter played out his cause from prison with remarkable media savvy; he became the darling of celebrities, including, of course, Bob Dylan, only to be set aside by many of them after his loss in his second trial. The movie alludes to this disenfranchisement in passing, but we never get a real sense of what a circus Carter's cause had become, or how it fit into the radical social activism of the time. You leave the film with the calm assurance that racial harmony has KO'd racial discord and that all is indeed right with the world.


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