- The Hurricane (1999) movie review: An overbearing Denzel Washington doesn’t help director Norman Jewison and screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon’s contrived, overlong, and brazenly dishonest drama about boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who, while persistently proclaiming his innocence, spent nearly 20 years behind bars for murder.
- The Hurricane earned Denzel Washington a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
The Hurricane movie review: A snarling Denzel Washington stars in what may be director Norman Jewison’s worst effort
What went wrong with director and co-producer Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane, about the issues surrounding the near-two-decade imprisonment – under questionable circumstances – of rising U.S. boxing star Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, one of two black men convicted by an all-white jury of the murder of three people at a Paterson, New Jersey, bar in 1966?
Carter’s story, which inspired Bob Dylan to write the 1975 song “Hurricane,” should have been ideal material for the three-time Best Director Academy Award-nominated filmmaker (In the Heat of the Night, 1967; Fiddler on the Roof, 1971; Moonstruck, 1987) and 1999 recipient of the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.
Like Stanley Kramer in the 1950s and 1960s, Norman Jewison has often dedicated himself to commercial filmmaking with a sociopolitical edge: The Cold War in The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966); anti-black racism in both the Oscar winner In the Heat of the Night (Best Actor winner Rod Steiger has a cameo in The Hurricane) and A Soldier’s Story (1984); anti-Jewish bigotry in Fiddler on the Roof; labor relations in F.I.S.T. (1978); corruption in the U.S. justice system in …And Justice for All (1979); religious fanaticism in Agnes of God (1985).
Although never the most profound or innovative of directors – most of his well-intentioned efforts are just that, “well intentioned” – and leaving aside fluff like the Doris Day comedies The Thrill of It All and Send Me No Flowers and the Oscar-nominated Moonstruck, Jewison has managed to imbue much of his work with at least a modicum of insight.
Even so, the filmmaker’s most recent exposé of the United States’ pervasive anti-black racism and its perverse justice system is, to put it kindly, a dismal failure.
Jewison’s tendency to make his movies more broadly “accessible” is taken to extremes in The Hurricane, which is based on two books, including one authored by Rubin Carter himself. (See further below.) As a result, any complexities found in the actual case are categorically zapped away while the boxer turned wrongly convicted/imprisoned justice fighter (played by Denzel Washington) is consecrated as a victim-hero.
If that weren’t enough, the screenplay – credited to Armyan Bernstein (also one of the film’s producers) and Dan Gordon (who also wrote the socially conscious drama Murder in the First) – features elements straight out of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, among them a Javert-like police officer, Inspector Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), who takes most of the blame for Carter’s fate.
The problem with this sort of dramatic device is neither the cribbing from Hugo’s classic novel nor the fact that Della Pesca is a made-up character (partly inspired by Lt. Vincent DeSimone, the lead detective in the real-life case).
Instead, it’s in the filmmakers’ decision to focus on one racist white police officer while mostly bypassing the thorny issue of endemic racism within the U.S. justice system and in American society as a whole.
Distracting lead performance
To counterbalance Della Pesca’s cartoonish vileness, The Hurricane movie heroes are exemplars of rectitude.
Rubin Carter, for instance, has his four-year prison stint (for having committed three muggings) erased from his record. After all, The Hurricane must be portrayed as a summer breeze lest audiences feel disinclined to empathize with him.
Tackling a role all but devoid of dark shades, the now two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Best Supporting Actor for Glory, 1989; Best Actor for Training Day, 2001) adds extra wattage to his performance as if to compensate for his character’s vacuousness.
Washington twirls his lips in frustration and bares his teeth in anger, but his acting is ultimately unsatisfying – worse, it’s distracting – because these superficial facial tricks are there to make us forget that precious little is going on inside. And never mind the fact that all that lip-twirling and teeth-baring would earn him a Best Actor Oscar nomination and the Best Actor prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
Admittedly, even more annoying than the star’s hamminess is the sight of a pathologically nice trio of Canadians (Liev Schreiber, Deborah Kara Unger, and John Hannah). Instead of being all committed to a lunatic asylum somewhere north of the 49th parallel, the three Mountie wannabes end up in Jersey doing their bleeding-heart utmost to save the boxer while helping to destroy the film about him.
Not even Canadians can rescue The Hurricane
The Hurricane’s non-linear storytelling, which takes the viewer back and forth between Carter’s youth, his (black-and-white) boxing years, and his time in jail, is the only non-conventional aspect of the narrative.
Apart from that, Norman Jewison’s anti-intolerance diatribe is all fierce speechifying, slow-motion fighting, ineffectual posing, and hokey lines of the type “You sound more like a man every day.”
By opting to dumb down the intricate story of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the triple murder case, and the boxer’s lengthy time behind bars and eventual freedom, Jewison and screenwriters Bernstein and Gordon threw away the opportunity to present a serious-minded – and, in this age of Patriot acts, relevant – indictment of both American justice and society.
The Hurricane (1999)
Director: Norman Jewison.
Screenplay: Armyan Bernstein & Dan Gordon.
From Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’s The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, and Sam Chaiton & Terry Swinton’s Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Freeing of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.
Cast: Denzel Washington. Deborah Kara Unger. Liev Schreiber. John Hannah. Dan Hedaya. Rod Steiger. Harris Yulin. David Paymer. Vicellous Reon Shannon.
“The Hurricane Movie (1999) Review” notes
‘Separating truth from fiction’
 As found in a December 1999 New York Times article by Selwyn Raab, “Separating Truth from Fiction in The Hurricane,” the evidence that led to Rubin Carter’s release from prison was unearthed by his defense lawyers – not by goody-goody Canadians.
In the piece, Raab writes:
“[The Hurricane] presents a false vision of the legal battles and personal struggles that led to Carter’s freedom and creates spurious heroes in fictionalized episodes that attribute his vindication to members of a Canadian commune who unearth long suppressed evidence. While glorifying the Canadians, the film plays down the heroic efforts of the lawyers whose strategy finally won the day for Mr. Carter. And virtually obliterated in the film version is the vital role played by John Artis, Mr. Carter’s co-defendant, who was also wrongly convicted and imprisoned for 15 years.”
Raab adds that there never was a racist Javert-like cop hounding the boxer, while also decrying the manner in which Carter’s hardly squeaky-clean early life was sanitized in the film.
Rubin Carter and the still-murky triple murder case are discussed in detail in Mike Kelly’s March 2000 article for The Record, “Doubts, errors, unknowns still haunt the case of ‘Hurricane’ Carter, John Artis,” found at northjersey.com.
“Hurricane Carter was a guest at the screening. President Clinton called it an honor to welcome him and praised him for his courage and persistence in fighting the unjust conviction. No one present commented on the incongruity of these words. It was Mr. Clinton who signed a bill in 1996 [the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act] that may make it virtually impossible for another unjustly convicted prisoner to find justice in the way Hurricane Carter did.”
“The Hurricane Movie” endnotes
Liev Schreiber, Deborah Kara Unger, and Denzel Washington The Hurricane movie images: Universal Pictures | Buena Vista.
“The Hurricane Movie (1999): Hollow Washington in Phony Drama” last updated in September 2021.