Denzel Washington certainly makes his bid for an Oscar with his winning portrayal of champion boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane. Washington is stunning and convincing in the ring, behind bars and, finally, in the courtroom.
The Hurricane is one of those personal triumph movies that makes people stand up and cheer. And for that alone, it’s bound to attract criticism. But its enthusiasm carries with it a thoughtful sense of dignity. Not only because it is based on Carter’s real life, but also because – even as it stretches history for dramatic effect – it tells its story in a true language.
Inspiring, engrossing and compelling, this tale of a prizefighter slapped with three life sentences for murders he didn’t commit grapples constantly yet carefully with a controversy that is almost too perfect an example of human imperfection vying with the beauty of the human spirit – even for the movies.
The Hurricane traces the hard knocks of Carter’s life, from being placed in a boy’s home for stabbing a white man to his climactic legal battle against the state of New Jersey in middle age. As he takes down opponents in the ring and, later, as he swings frantically at air in his cell, Carter perfects a dance of hate – aimed specifically at the white establishment and crooked police investigator Vincent Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), a cookie-cutter villain who promised to take Carter down after his first run-in with the law at age 11.
But The Hurricane is more than a document of a man’s lifelong bout with racism and injustice. It also follows Carter’s intellectual and spiritual awakenings spurred by the psychological challenges of his imprisonment.
Well into the movie and Carter’s 20-year prison stint, he opens a letter from Lesra "Lazarus" Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a black teen from Brooklyn who is being home-tutored by three white activists in Canada. A sort of mirror image of his hero, Lesra is inspired enough by the autobiography Carter pens in prison, The Sixteenth Round, to pay the author a visit. The tables turn, eventually, with a better-than-fiction series of events that make the teen Carter’s hero. And the rest is the stuff of fairy tales or, in this case, bible stories.
Because the movie is based on real-life events, most of us already know Carter’s story, either from the news, books or the Bob Dylan song that immortalized him. So The Hurricane never has to rely on suspense or even historical accuracy to absorb its audience. Instead, the movie articulates each turn, each clash, each defeat and a final triumph that never forces us to slate the whole as fiction or fact as much as it compels us to consider the underlying truths.
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