"Hate put me in prison. Loveís gonna bust me out."
These are the words of Rubin Carter, a world champion boxer from the 1960s who spent over twenty years in prison for a murder he did not commit. His statement speaks to the high power of love, a force so strong that even the biggest of obstacles must give way to its might. In light of that, itís fitting to note that Rubin Carterís boxing moniker was "Hurricane". You know, as in the weather system so strong that even the biggest of obstacles must give way to its might. Indeed, love is a hurricane. And thatís what this film is all about.
If youíre white and you think African-Americans are too sensitive in regards to the notion of "The Man keeping The Brother down", then a film like "The Hurricane" will go a long way in helping you understand why the sensitivity exists. In the mid-1960s an utterly sickening miscarriage of justice occurred to Rubin "Hurricane" Carter as he was convicted not once but twice of murders for which he was wholly innocent. Racism was the lone factor in this tragedy, spearheaded by corrupt police detectives who doctored and manufactured false evidence to make their case.
The fighter that he was, Carter fought for years to clear his name. One of the saddest aspects of his entire story was to see this proud, strong man ever-so-slowly lose his will to fight. Itís an erosion of the human spirit we see here and it cuts to the soul. As the Rev. Martin Luther King was proclaiming his dream, Carter was living the nightmare. No matter how proud of an American you are this story cannot help but make you feel shame. Certainly, it takes a proud American to truly feel the shame of this ugly chapter in our judicial history.
Carter may never have even found justice were it not for the determination and, yes, love of a few common people (Canadians, ironically enough). Protesters, picketers and supporters that included the rich and famousónot even a heralded song by Bob Dylanócould turn the tide in Carterís favor.
But one young man by the name of Lesra Martin did. Along with his three Canadian tutors, Lesra found the strength to endure when Carter was ready to go down for the count. For as strong as the potential for human ugliness is, nothing is more inspiring than the realization of human beauty. And when it stands courageously in the face of that ugliness, a blessed thing occurs: love becomes the heart of the equation, the fruit of which is nothing short of a divine spiritual experience. Two individualsóeven strangersóconnecting in a intense, life-changing way. The impossible happens when love is fueled by perseverance.
This is the other story of "The Hurricane", and itís certainly the most potent. Lesra, a young black teenage man, is inspired by the first book he has ever read titled "The Sixteenth Round", Rubin Carterís autobiography. So moved was Lesra that he began to correspond with Rubin in jail and the relationship grew. From the depths of his despair, Rubin wrote his story. That story touched the life of a young man, who in turn responds to such a profound level that Rubin is himself inspired, even reborn. This is truly humanity at its best.
"The Hurricane", while not filmmaking at its best, certainly goes the distance quite admirably. The screenplay is well constructed, weaving past and present through the first half of the film with ease and clarity, then taking a more linear approach in the second half as Rubin and Lesraís friendship forms. Its miscues are few: the racist detectives are portrayed a bit heavy-handedly, the threat they pose to Carterís supporters seems overly dramatized, and the script occasionally falls prey to excessively noble (a.k.a. unrealistic) dialogue.
But these lapses are infrequent and minor, and the whole of the film is a genuinely moving experience. Denzel Washington is the filmís lifeblood, its spirit. He has rarely (if ever) been better, portraying passion, conviction, insanity, despair and dignity with subtle force. Itís a powerhouse of a performance. Vicellous Reon Shannon imbues young Lesra with enthusiasm, youthful fervor and humility. He and Washington have a dynamic chemistry, and their scenes together are among the best of 1999.
The strength of their sincerity never allows for cheap sentimentality; their hearts and feelings are pure and they genuinely move us. It doesnít take a lot for me to choke up or cryóbut I rarely do at movies because they seldom offer what it takes: emotional honesty. "The Hurricane" offers this in remarkable abundance, the credit to which falls largely on the talents of Washington and Shannon.
Liev Schreiber, Deborah Kara Unger and John Hannah play the Canadian tutors who help Lesra in the pursuit to prove Carterís innocence. Itís more than help, really, as their investment becomes equally personal.This trio of actors succeeds in adding rather than detracting to the filmís emotional dynamic. White saviors are often times overplayed in films such as these, but Schreiber, Unger and Hannah wisely avoid any air of self-importance.
This subject matter is not new to director Norman Jewison. He covered similar territory in the 1967 Best Picture Oscar Winner "In the Heat of the Night" starring Sidney Poitier, one of the best films ever about racial prejudice. He again explored bigotry in 1984ís "A Soldierís Story", in which he cast an unknown Denzel Washington. So "The Hurricane" ends a trilogy of sorts, and itís an artful and thoughtful final chapter. Jewison understands the nuances needed in a film like this, avoiding melodrama at nearly every turn. And with the stellar cast heís assembled Jewison does not fear the close-up, thus creating an intimate character study that allows us to connect deeply with this stirring human drama.
Rubin Carter talks about how we must transcend those things that oppress us. It is a theme that is at the heartóindeed, it is the heartóof "The Hurricane", a truly (though not consistently) transcendent experience in its own right. It inspires because itís rarely schmaltzy, primarily due to an incomparable Oscar-worthy performance by Denzel Washington. Itís fitting that the film opened on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.ís birthday and that itíll run through February (Black History Month). "The Hurricane" shows us both the shame of our nationís racist past as well as how both blacks and whites have overcome it. Dr. Kingís dream is being realized, and the story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter is a glorious testament to it.
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