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JANUARY 10, 2000: 

The Hurricane

With such recent films as Liberty Heights, The Green Mile, and now Norman Jewison's The Hurricane, the level of racial enlightenment in Hollywood has sunk to a pre-Guess Who's Coming to Dinner level.

But wait, you ask. Isn't that last-named picture the story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the black boxer framed on a murder charge in New Jersey in the 1960s, the guy who was sentenced to life in prison, who fought a racist system of justice to get a new trial, became a '70s cause célèbre inspiring a hit song by Bob Dylan, and was finally vindicated and set free after serving 18 years?

Well, yes and no. True, Denzel Washington, one of the most ill-used talents in Hollywood, puts in a smoldering, sinewy performance in the title role, depicting Carter as a wronged and tormented hero with human weaknesses who achieves inner strength, perseverance, and a kind of peace from his years of incarceration and his hapless fury at injustice. Washington brings to mind his performance in Spike Lee's Malcolm X, the crucial difference being that the director this time is Norman Jewison.

Not that Lee's movie was a masterpiece -- it was overlong and had its preachiness. But it wasn't hagiography. Undoubtedly with the best intentions, crusty old Canadian liberal that he is, Jewison has airbrushed Carter of his foibles and turned him into that hoary racial stereotype, the saintly martyred black man. Positive, perhaps, but no less patronizing than the shiftless Amos 'n' Andy ne'er-do-well in Liberty Heights or the overgrown miracle child of The Green Mile.

A recent New York Times article delved into the way the film distorts the truth. In doing a movie about real events, you can make a case for altering the facts in the service of a greater artistic truth. But what about altering the facts to make the story incoherent, banal, and self-serving? The first third of The Hurricane suggests that the film was written on a stack of file cards that got dropped and put back in the wrong order. The sole unifying device is a villainous detective played by Dan Hedaya who, Javert-like, has a thing about Carter. (Perhaps it's a latent homosexuality, inasmuch as one of the first white people to victimize Carter is a predatory gay city official -- Jewison may pretend to political correctness, but this note of homophobia is ugly.) Maybe the skewed chronology is Jewison's stab at being a stylist, along with his pseudo-Raging Bull passages of black-and-white ring action and the arty jump cuts of Carter losing his grip in solitary confinement.

The narrative recovers somewhat when it settles into the courtroom drama, but then the focus shifts from Carter to Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a young African-American who, inspired by Carter's autobiography (The Sixteenth Round -- one of the sources for the movie), contacts him in prison. Lesra has been adopted by Lisa (Deborah Kara Unger), Sam (Liev Schreiber), and Terry (John Hannah), members of a weird Canadian commune who then adopt Carter as well, spearheading a renewed drive to set him free. And so the movie shifts to its second source, Lazarus and the Hurricane (written by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, the Sam and Terry of the movie), and becomes a vindication not of Carter but of well-meaning Canadians like, well, the director.

The Hurricane has its moments. The bond between Lesra and Carter is fitfully moving, Washington is eloquent, and the outcome of the case, especially for those unfamiliar with it, is engrossing and occasionally rousing. But it's sobering to look back at the wit, passion, and dignity of Jewison's own In the Heat of the Night and consider that that film was made in 1967, the year Rubin Carter was convicted. On the brink of a new century, that Heat has turned into hot air.

-- Peter Keough

Old Man River

Cyndy Fujikawa is the kind of person you'd want sitting next to you at a dinner party: warm, witty, and a great storyteller. And, boy, does she have a story to tell. In Old Man River, Allan Holzman's filmed version of her stage show, Fujikawa embarks on a multimedia monologue that would give Spalding Gray a run for his money. The story revolves around Fujikawa's search for the truth about Jerry Fujikawa, her late father. With the aid of film clips, photos, and a marvelous knack for mimickry, she traces Jerry's shadowy family life, his career as a bit-part actor (he played "Oriental characters" in movies and TV shows), and his internment during WW2.

What could have been a self-indulgent, preachy, dull enterprise is instead quirky, touching, and gripping -- all thanks to Fujikawa's narrative skills. Her chronological meandering weaves elements of the story in delightfully surprising ways. She avoids sentimentality by switching from pathos to irony in a heartbeat. Most important, she finds universality in her very personal tale. Like all good storytellers, Fujikawa isn't only talking to you, in some sense she's talking about you.

-- Chris Wright

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