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Memphis Flyer Release Me

Hokey script and boring direction cannot dull the force of Denzel Washington's performance in "The Hurricane."

By Chris Herrington

JANUARY 31, 2000:  In The Hurricane, the new biopic of wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Great American Actor Denzel Washington beats Pious, Boring Director Norman Jewison by a split-decision.

This is Washington’s biggest role since Malcolm X, and it might be his best performance since his Oscar turn in Glory. After spending the last few years slogging through forgettable films like Fallen, The Siege, and The Bone Collector, Washington makes a forceful comeback as Carter, a New Jersey boxer who served 20 years in prison for a triple homicide that he didn’t commit.

A defiant black nationalist and championship contender who was silenced by a racist law enforcement and judicial system, Carter’s case became a cause celebre for a while in the mid-Seventies, but he lost two appeals and seemed destined to serve out his life sentence. The Hurricane focuses on an unlikely event that occurred after the attention dissolved: An African-American boy named Lesra Martin (played beautifully by former Memphian Vicellous Reon Shannon), living as the ward of three white, Canadian social activists, finds a copy of Carter’s autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, at a used-book sale. Lesra strikes up a long-distance friendship with Carter that leads him and his Canadian guardians to work for the boxer’s defense. Working with Carter’s attorneys to uncover new evidence, the group helps get his conviction overturned in Federal court.

Carter’s engrossing story — a black male imprisoned at the hands of a racist system, symbolic of one of the key stories of our times — and Washington’s electric performance are the reasons The Hurricane ultimately works; the screenplay and direction sure don’t afford much help.

Screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon pad The Hurricane with the worst sort of awkward, “After School Special” dialogue. When Lesra asks his Canadian guardian Sam (Liev Schreiber) about the used-book sale, Sam says, “That’s the great thing about books; once you use them you can pass them along to someone else [dramatic pause] like a torch.” Later when visiting Carter in prison, Lesra is counseled, “Writing is a weapon, and it’s more powerful than a fist can ever be … it’s magic.” Worst of all is the ready-made tag line that Washington is forced to say toward the film’s end: “Hate put me in prison; love’s gonna bust me out.”

Even from a technical standpoint, the veteran producer/director Jewison doesn’t fare much better. Jewison jumps back and forth in time to tell Carter’s story, from his hardscrabble childhood in Patterson, to his early boxing career, to his prison sentence, to the story of Lesra and the three activists. This style of ruptured narrative has been a component of the cinema at least since Citizen Kane and has become increasingly commonplace in the last decade, but Jewison’s handling of the device seems rather clumsy and artless compared to the way it’s been used by directors like Atom Egoyan, Steven Soderbergh, and Quentin Tarantino.

Jewison films all of Carter’s boxing scenes in black-and-white. Typically, when black-and-white is used in color films, it’s to provide a visual separation for flashback sequences, but in The Hurricane, scenes from even earlier in the narrative are in color, so this isn’t the case. The boxing scenes here, then, are a pretty blatant nod to Raging Bull, but without Martin Scorsese’s artful, visceral direction. The only time these scenes have any real juice is when Jewison choreographs one to the tune of Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

The film gains force when Jewison merely trains his camera on Washington and gets out of the way. The Hurricane is at its best during the prison sequences, when we see Carter fighting to maintain his mental freedom during imprisonment — refusing to wear prison clothes or eat prison food, devising a personal routine so that he wakes when other prisoners sleep and sleeps while they’re awake. When Carter is thrown into solitary confinement for refusing to wear a prison uniform, Jewison gives Washington time to convey the psychological struggle that Carter had to go through to keep his sanity, and the actor delivers a spare, focused performance.

But Washington gives his masterful performance in a film that isn’t really worthy of it. The Hurricane’s great flaw, which is not surprising given that Jewison has made his reputation off of middlebrow message movies like In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story, is the director’s handling of race.

The Hurricane asks us to believe that Ruben Carter’s false imprisonment was the result of one crooked cop, Vincent Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), and that Della Pesca hounded Carter throughout his life. The virulently racist Della Pesca (“I’m gonna take your black ass down.”) puts an 11-year-old Carter in a boys’ home, and shows up again throughout Carter’s life, ultimately framing Carter for the triple murder that puts him in prison. Della Pesca is hopefully intended to be a symbol of the racism that plagued Ruben Carter throughout his life, but Jewison uses the character so awkwardly, and Hedaya’s cartoonish performance is so straight-to-video, that he just seems like some kind of psycho stalker. It’s a device that grossly oversimplifies some rather complex racial dynamics.

The evil Della Pesca typifies a film about black and white that is, itself, predicated on a moral universe that seems to know few shades of gray. Moral ambiguity is apparently not on Jewison’s itinerary: Every character in The Hurricane is set up to be either a saint or an embodiment of evil, with the prison warden, who appears in all of two scenes, the only exception.

In the end, the fundamental concern of The Hurricane, like so many other white-directed films about racism in America (From To Kill a Mockingbird to Ghosts of Mississippi to Amistad) may be less the truth of how racism functions within our system of justice than reassuring a (white) liberal audience about the enduring validity of these institutions. It’s no coincidence that these films always climax in a courtroom (The Hurricane takes care to pan across this inscription on the Federal court building where Carter’s case is heard: “True administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good”), where the problem of institutional racism is deflected on to a problem of bad white people (Della Pesca), who are confronted by good white people (the Canadians) in a fight over justice for a saintly black martyr (Carter).

The finale, where Carter is granted release, can’t help but be moving. But Jewison could have used The Hurricane as a platform to explore the real problem of institutional racism, and he could have made Carter’s story relevant to contemporary American life. Instead, Jewison merely offers false reassurance, content to appease his audience rather than provoke it.

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