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Director Norman Jewison Puts A Treacly Spin On 'Hurricane's Tale Of Injustice.

By James DiGiovanna

JANUARY 17, 2000:  I'VE ALWAYS BELIEVED that there is a universal force of pure goodness that binds the cosmos together and brings light and justice where there was darkness and injustice. After watching The Hurricane, I now have a name for this force: Canadians.

The Hurricane is the story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a former number one contender for the welterweight boxing championship of the world. In 1966 Carter and an acquaintance named John Artis were wrongly arrested for a triple murder in Carter's hometown of Patterson, N.J. Although the two were patently innocent (eyewitnesses to the murder all concurred that they were not the men who committed the crime), a grossly racist and corrupt New Jersey legal system twice convicted them, largely on the basis of coerced testimony from a small-time hood who was granted leniency in a burglary case in exchange for changing his testimony and saying that he did in fact see Carter commit the murders.

Carter's story is intensely engaging, both because of the complexity of his character and because of the wild and illegal machinations of the New Jersey prosecutors and police officers who obtained his conviction. Unfortunately, director Norman Jewison captures just about none of this, focusing instead on a largely invented story about Carter's rescue from prison by a group of angelic Canadians.

In the real world, the Canadian saints in question, Terry Swinton, Lisa Peters and Sam Chaiton, provided a great deal of paralegal assistance to Carter's lawyers. In the movie, they form a crack investigative team so good at uncovering hidden clues and monstrous villains that they should be driving around in a psychedelic van with a talking dog.

The pale and luminescent Canadians are set in strong contrast to a "composited" character named Vincent Della Pesca, a police officer who mysteriously is present every time The Man comes down on Hurricane. When Carter is first arrested at age 11, pow, there's Della Pesca. When the cops come to pick up a reformed Private First Class Rubin Carter, wham, there's Della Pesca. And, of course, when it's time to frame Carter for murder, zowie, there's Della Pesca, magically appearing to enforce the power of whiteness. Della Pesca is so evil, in fact, that his very name means "of the fishing," like maybe he's fishing for, like, Carter.

This black-and-white distinction between the evil, white Della Pesca and the good, white Canadians obscures the very real White over Black power structure that kept Carter in prison. If it were merely that there was one evil police officer who was responsible for the entire miscarriage of justice, then we could think that on the whole, things were essentially OK. The real story, involving the collusion and accession of judges, juries, police and prosecutors, is much more frightening in what it says about the way in which racism was present not just in evil individuals, but in entire institutions.

The Hurricane fails to present this, choosing instead to focus on Carter's prison years. It's an interesting idea, but Norman Jewison can't really pull it off. Mostly, he gives us interminable sequences of Carter arguing with himself in his own head, all accomplished through the magic of tedious voice-over monologue (or maybe one-person-dialogue, whichever you prefer). Then, perhaps realizing that a one-man-show is not gonna pack in the crowds, Carter goes for that favorite ploy, the cute kid.

The cute kid in question is Lesra Martin (played by Vicellous Reon Shannon, who wins the award for New Actor With The Best Name), who was semi-adopted by the Canadians. He reads Carter's autobiography, becomes obsessed with the case, and convinces his guardians that they should drop everything to devote themselves to freeing Hurricane.

In the process of humanizing Hurricane by focusing on his friendship with the young boy, director Jewison whitewashes the more challenging aspects of Carter's personality. It's certainly more difficult to make a hero out of someone who, like Carter, drank a bit, cheated on his wife, and was convicted as a young adult of three muggings, than it would be to just turn Carter into some kind of holy man. Of course, Jewison also made the movie Jesus Christ Superstar, which probably gave him an overly simple model for a protagonist, one he seems to follow a bit too slavishly here.

This is not to say that there's nothing good about The Hurricane. In spite of Jewison's best efforts to camouflage this, there's an important and deeply affecting true story at work here. Also, Denzel Washington, who is fast on his way to becoming typecast as the stern-but-intensely-noble guy, gives a good performance here as a stern-but-intensely-noble guy. There's also a strong performance by Liev Shrieber as Canadian Sam Chaiton, and a real show-stealer by the always riveting Rod Steiger as a federal court judge.

Still, with such a fascinating story to tell, it's a shame that the best thing you can say about this movie is that it has that great song by Bob Dylan; you know the one, I think it's called "Hurricane."


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