The Hurricane (1999)

by Josh Jones


The Fury and the Fog of The Hurricane

Hurricane. One word, one name, one man. One man whom I — and probably most of my generation — had never heard prior to seeing The Hurricane. His name is remembered, however, by members of his generation, most notably, celebrities Bob Dylan (whose song, “The Story of Hurricane” provides a musical motif in this film), actress Ellen Burstyn (who campaigned in the ‘60s for Hurricane’s release from prison), and Norman Jewison, director of the new film about 1966 welterweight boxing champion, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter.

The Hurricane is about Carter’s unjust, 22-year incarceration, for murders he did not commit. The film is, overall, genuinely moving and powerful, thanks to an extraordinary performance by Denzel Washington in the title role. He lost weight and worked out for the role and, onscreen, miraculously ages 30 years, portraying the boxer from his prime at 20, to his release from prison at age 50. Jewison, who funkdafied the New Testament in Jesus Christ Superstar, goes light on the sap and gives us some insightful moments, impeccably staged boxing scenes (shot in black and white), and effective achronological editing. The Hurricane manages to leave the audience misty, but still thinking, when it finally ends (after two and a half hours).

cover art

The Hurricane

Director: Norman Jewison
Cast: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Dan Hedaya, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Shreiber, John Hannah


And yet this film is not without its problems. Though The Hurricane is a good example of standard Hollywood filmmaking done well, it tends to get reductive, with some fairly obvious symbolism (lots of heavy prison doors slamming shut in front of the camera) and some really good guys pitted against really bad guys. Where the film goes more obviously wrong is in its weak characterizations of several key players, and the disappearance of others whose presence would have lent the film more emotional depth. There are also some vague subplots and asides which, while ultimately connected to the main story, never really add up to much.

The Hurricane begins with a series of short scenes, chronologically shuffled, that give us clues about the story about to unfold. The black and white scenes of Hurricane’s fights are reminiscent of that prototypical boxer’s drama, Raging Bull, and those showing him in prison are tightly framed, claustrophobic enough to make us feel as if we were locked up with him. About a half hour into the film — which has so far focused on Ruben and promised an intriguing mystery — we meet some new, seemingly unrelated characters, who will become protagonists.

With the title “7 years later,” we see Lesra, a young, black, high school student from Brooklyn, purchasing Hurricane’s autobiography — which we also witness Ruben writing and smuggling out of prison — at a used book sale in Toronto. Lesra is accompanied by Sam (Liev Shreiber) and Terry (John Hannah), two thirds of his surrogate Canadian family, which also includes Lisa (Deborah Kara Unger). We learn that the three Canadians have adopted Lesra and taught him to read. While all four characters become central to the action, their introduction is somewhat awkward and distracting in the wake of the intense scenes from Hurricane’s life that precede it. We hardly ever know anything about the Canadians except their names, and that they are in the seemingly lucrative (they are able to support Lesra, and all soon travel to New Jersey and live in a hotel for many months) business of fixing up old houses and selling them.

Both Lesra and Hurricane become the wards of these “good white people” who want to help American black males in trouble, why, we don’t know (except that they appear to function as cathartic exorcisms of liberal white guilt). Then the film moves back to Ruben Carter, through a series of flashbacks motivated by his voice over as he writes, and Lesra, years later, reads, his autobiography, we see how he became “the Hurricane.” After a sequence showing Carter’s rough childhood and the events that led up to his early incarceration in a juvenile facility, we meet the villain, a sleazy bastard of a cop name Della Pesca, played with perfect sliminess by Dan Hedaya of Dick fame. This cop torments Ruben for the rest of his life, forcing him to return to prison again and again, and pinning the bogus murder rap on him, which sends him up for three consecutive life sentences.

Again, here we have a character so central to the action, yet so sketchily drawn, that his all-consuming “badness” seems as nebulous and implausible as the Canadians’ “goodness.” Della Pesca’s motivation for his life’s mission to “get” the Hurricane is little more than abstract racism and political machination, manifested as a personal grudge. Although it appears that Della Pesca and his cohorts in the New Jersey state courts benefited from the ruination of Carter’s life and career, just how they benefited, we never know. We do know that this story is based on fact, and there is nothing new about a man being hounded by the law simply because he is black and successful. However, this cop is just not believable. He becomes more of a type — a stand-in for institutionalized hate and bigotry — than a real human adversary. Della Pesca seems to pop up at every stage in Hurricane’s life to screw him as things are getting good. This is most infuriating when Hurricane meets his future wife Mae Thelma (Debbi Morgan) in a bar, upon returning from his stint in the Army. He accompanies her home, at which point, Della Pesca show up and hauls Ruben away to prison because he had escaped from the juvenile facility years earlier, and, as the surly cop puts it, “you still owe me time.” Ruben is eventually released, marries Mae Thelma, and becomes the champ. However, Della Pesca is not finished with him — nailing him for a triple homicide, despite much evidence to the contrary — and Ruben spends another 22 years of his life in prison before finally getting a federal appeal, with the help of Lesra and the selfless Canadians.

Strangely, after a very powerful scene with Ruben and Mae Thelma visiting him in prison — again carried by Washington, amazing in this film — she promises to never give up on him, and then promptly disappears from the film, never to be seen again except in a title at the end that verifies that she, and their child, still exist. Stranger still is the way that the three Canadians, who became Lesra’s surrogate family, also become Hurricane’s, displacing his wife and child and becoming the only effectual means of liberating him from prison, giving him the strength to “do the time,” meanwhile. All of the black families (Lesra’s and Hurricane’s) in the film are complete failures, and it is up to the altruism of caring whites to look after the Lesra and the champ.

With all of the film’s vague characters, it does manage some very affecting scenes, such as that of Ruben in solitary confinement, in which he confronts various aspects of his personality. The Hurricane is an emotionally engaging film, mainly because of Denzel Washington’s award-worthy performance. This film will ultimately serve to introduce a new generation to a man who inspired many during the ‘60s and will hopefully inspire those viewers to learn more about the life of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter than this cursory drama, for all its tender moments, provides.

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