The Hurricane (1999)

D: Norman Jewison
S: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon

A young boy reads the autobiography of Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, the champion boxer wrongly convicted of murder and imprisoned for life, which inspires him in more ways than one. He writes to the man and develops a friendship, and eventually gets the Canadians who have taken on the cause of his education to take on the cause of seeking justice for his hero. If nothing else, director Norman Jewison's lengthy film is probably one of the most vivid calls for literacy seen outside of an after-school special. It is entirely predicated upon encounters with and via the written word, from the biography which sets the plot in motion to the letters exchanged between boy and man which eventually draw out the emotional core of the film. It is a story about connection, and it illustrates that even in the age of digital media, print has the power to bring people together.

This may sound like a reductive or at least peculiar response to a film which might seem on the surface to be a biographical drama. Yet it is not surprising given that the script is based not merely upon the details of Carter's career and conviction, but upon the book Lazarus and the Hurricane, which charts the real-life encounter between Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon) and 'Hurricane' Carter (Denzel Washington), supported by the boy's enigmatic Canadian sponsors (played by Liev Schreiber (Scream), Deborah Unger (Crash), and John Hannah (The Mummy)). It is not exactly a straight biopic, and as a racial drama it runs dangerously close to an uncomfortably bourgeois vision of race relations (it is difficult to see past the 'well-intentioned-white folks' syndrome which was a genuine factor in the Carter case and which the film addresses through the use of archival footage of various celebrities and well wishers protesting on Carter's behalf in the sixties). Despite some scenes where Carter tries to come to terms with his treatment by the white establishment, the film never quite clarifies its position on these issues. It is certainly not as slippery as In the Heat of the Night in mixing generic markers with points of political concern, though, granted, this story quite a different proposition. The film feels like a TV docudrama, with characters who are either too specific or not specific enough due to the conflicting demands of authenticity and drama. Dan Hedaya plays a rather old-school obsessive racist which somehow never feels much more than a stand-in for institutional attitudes. Likewise the three white Canadians remain oddly unfocused ciphers of good will who seem to offer an equally simplistic counterpoint. This is too much the stuff of lesser genre movies, and robs the film of some of its potential impact.

Thankfully, the centre is held by Denzel Washington (Fallen). His intense performance sustains it through its rough patches, and several scenes of contact between human beings from sometimes different generational, educational, and racial backgrounds are charged with emotional energy which glosses over the niggles. Shannon is solid in support, as are most of the cast (Clancy Brown has an amusing role as a prison guard which reverses his role in The Shawshank Redemption), but Washington is the movie. Though there isn't a lot of variety to the characterisation, it is appropriately self-contained, dealing as it does with Carter's conscious attempt to withdraw from human contact to deprive the justice system of its power to destroy his soul. Scenes of him quietly meditating in his cell or staggering with exhausted dignity out of solitary confinement in his ravaged suit are effective because of Washington's presence. His underplay becomes particularly meaningful in the latter stages, when following his connection with the boy and his sponsors, he is unable to remain closed off from the rest of humanity and resumes his struggle to clear his name. The metaphor or resurrection and restoration through the word has unmissable religious overtones, but this element is curiously subdued. Washington's is not as dynamic a performance as his Malcolm X, nor does the film on the whole have the power of Lee's again very different work, but it is appropriate to the overall approach, and proves to be its salvation. What resonance it has comes from watching Washington interpret Carter's mixture of emotions, from scenes of anger and hate to pain and suffering.

The Hurricane is not quite the masterpiece which it seems to hope it is, but it does showcase a significant piece of acting from one of contemporary American cinema's most important African-Americans in a role with great political resonance. It is not as gripping as it probably should be, and it lacks the kind of organisation and focus which a more conventional biopic approach would have given it, but this doesn't prevent it from making one or two worthwhile observations. It is not a film which lends itself to immediate recommendation, but there are rewards for patient and tolerant viewers and fans of the star. It is worth seeing, but not necessarily essential.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.