There’s a moment partway through The Hurricane that may cause you to catch your breath. It’s a cramped shot, as are most of those showing Ruben Hurricane Carter (Denzel Washington) in his New Jersey State Prison cell. The camera frames his face and upper body in deep shadow as he reads a letter from a new correspondent, a boy who’s been moved by the inmate’s autobiography, which details his unjust incarceration. As Ruben reads the letter, you notice a photograph that he has taped to his cell wall, just above his shoulder. It’s the famous image of Malcolm X, kneeling in prayer in the Middle East.
The shot is striking because it so clearly juxtaposes two remarkable black historical figures, both renowned for being persecuted and resilient. It’s perhaps more striking, however, because it shows two incredible roles for Denzel Washington. The irony is that, while Washington was roundly praised for his performance as Malcolm, there was no way in hell that he would have ever been awarded mainstream prizes, like the Oscar, for it, as it was a gigantically ambitious, wild-ass movie directed by a loud-mouthed, incredibly talented black director, Spike Lee. That Malcolm was a larger than life angry black man, not to mention stubborn, politically astute, and brilliant, surely didn’t make Academy type people feel any easier about the film, the character, the filmmakers, or the points they might have been making.
So now, just a few years later, Washington is appearing as another angry black man who is also legendary, articulate, and honorable. Only this time, he’s playing a character who turns his attitudes about race and injustice around, who is actually saved by a group of white people. His historical and metaphorical anger is ameliorated, in other words, by a plot that makes it all right to like nice white folks. Jewison’s film makes Ruben a much less alarming black man than Lee’s Malcolm. It’s not a little ironic, either, that Jewison was the man who directed A Soldier’s Story, the film that made Denzel a movie star, or that he was one of several white directors scheduled and unscheduled, over many years, to direct Malcolm X. At the time, Lee argued specifically that a white man could not do the story justice.
The Hurricane‘s Ruben Carter is hardly as volatile as the cinematic Malcolm. This despite the fact that there are any number of reasons for him to be furious, and the movie doesn’t skimp on them. Most of its scenes take place in Ruben’s various cells or during the brief moments of his release, when he’s really only waiting to be thrown back inside (punctuated by repeated images of large, loud prison doors and gates closing). And the movie closes at the point when Ruben, standing before a crusty federal appeals judge (Rod Stieger), learns that, after spending 22 years in prison for a triple homicide he did not commit, he will be set free. It’s as if, once the character no longer behind bars, the story is complete, or has lost its dramatic capacities, or has run out of steam.
This character is, of course, based on a real life person, a 1966 welterweight boxing champion named The Hurricane because of his fury and beauty in the ring, his resemblance to a “natural force.” It’s appropriate that the movie begins in the state penitentiary where Ruben spent so much of his life, just as his cell is about to be “tossed” (searched). He’s all charged up, prepared to fight off the intruders with all his skills and instincts. He’s eventually calmed by a friendly guard (Clancy Brown), and the manuscript is rescued. It also makes sense that the film begins with a conflict about Ruben’s book, The 16th Round, which gives him a voice (which, in real life, won real responses from 60s celebrity activists interested in freeing him). Throughout, the film’s prison scenes are awful, in particular, one sequence where he’s in solitary, and Washington in effect acts three characters, three versions of Ruben, frightened and humbled, aggressive and enraged, and the self caught between them, thoughtful but suspicious of his own beliefs, unable to make sense of this incredible situation.
It’s incredible but all too true and even mundane for so many minority prisoners in the U.S. that he’s in jail for something he didn’t do, that lawyers and judges for years ignore the obviously inconsistent evidence against him in the three murders case. But The Hurricane means to persuade, not alienate, its viewers It’s not about to leave you feeling as righteously and completely incensed as Ruben Carter felt during his life, or as Washington conveys. And so, the movie backs off, and constructs a singular and cartoonish villain, a Lieutenant Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya, looking even uglier than usual, especially when they layer on the old-man makeup for later scenes). It’s not clear why Della Pesca despises Ruben from the time he is a child so much that he uses nefarious means to frame him for that triple homicide. It is clear that Della Pesca is a metaphor for institutional and irrational racism (which you might intuit from the film’s use of many background tv images of police brutality against black people and Civil Rights workers). But he’s a clunky metaphor, unconvincing as a character and too easy for audience members to dismiss as unreal.
Rather, viewers are allowed to identify with the well-intentioned (and eventually successful: otherwise there would be no story to tell) do-gooders. They are led by Lesra (Vicellous Shannon), black and Brooklyn-born, now living in Toronto with a threesome he calls “the Canadians,” Terry (John Hannah), Lisa (Deborah Unger), and Sam (Liev Schreiber), who make their living by “fixing up” old houses. So well-intentioned are these white people, that they have rescued Lesra from his illiterate life, brought him home, and prepared him to apply to college. His discovery of Ruben’s book at a used book sale (some ten years after its initial publication, as its author continues to languish in prison) makes a dramatic connection. As Lesra reads, his own background is intercut with Ruben’s, and it becomes clear that they are fated to come together, to help and cherish one another in ways that no one else has been able or inclined.
The love story between Ruben and Lesra is beautiful and tactfully told how many mainstream films do you know that might show a romance (wholly asexual as it is), between two black men? but the movie can’t leave it alone. Rather, it frames and reframes their intimacy with images of the white folks. Surely, the “true story” fell out something like this: after coming to know Hurricane, the three Canadians and Lesra moved to New Jersey and devoted their time and energies to digging up the old corrupt evidence and making a case strong enough to go before that federal appeals court and win.
But to shape this story so neatly, the screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, based on Lazarus and The Hurricane by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton (two of the Canadians), and Carter’s own autobiography reduces complications and short-shrifts characters like Della Pesca and Ruben’s wife, Mae Thelma (Debbi Morgan), who appears for just enough scenes to be upset and supportive (and to give Ruben a son), and is then disappeared, to make emotional room for Ruben’s new “family.” All this coherence and rearrangement make The Hurricane disturbing. For all the courage and vitality it grants its protagonist, it’s not a brave film.