Like Stanley Kramer, Norman Jewison has often been dedicated to commercial filmmaking with a socially conscious edge: labor relations in F.I.S.T.; corruption in the U.S. justice system in …And Justice for All; religious fanaticism in Agnes of God; anti-Semitism in Fiddler on the Roof; and racism in both A Soldier’s Story and the Academy Award-winning In the Heat of the Night. Though never a brilliant director, Jewison has managed to imbue most of his films with at least a modicum of depth.
The Hurricane, the story of the wrongful imprisonment of rising boxing star Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, should have been ideal material for Jewison’s talents. Yet, the results of the director’s take on racism and legal corruption in this 1999 effort are, to put it mildly, highly disappointing.
Jewison’s tendency to simplify his stories in order to make them more “accessible” is taken to extremes in The Hurricane, thus diluting the complexity of the real-life drama while turning Carter (Denzel Washington) into a B-movie victim-hero. Bits of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables are thrown in among the film’s stock-in-trade characters and situations, with the result being a tedious, gooey mess.
In the screenplay, credited to Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon (who also wrote the prison drama Murder in the First), a Javert-like police officer, Inspector Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), takes most of the blame for Carter’s imprisonment. The chief problem with that dramatic device is not that Della Pesca is a bastardized version of Hugo’s Javert or even that he is a fictitious character (partly inspired by Lt. Vincent DeSimone, the lead detective in the actual case); but that by focusing on one racist white police officer, The Hurricane fails to deal head-on with the issue of endemic racism within the U.S. justice system.
To counterbalance Della Pesca’s ugliness, the film’s heroes are as shiny and perfect as Denzel Washington’s teeth. Carter’s four-year prison stint (for having committed three muggings) goes unmentioned, for The Hurricane must be portrayed as a locked-up summer breeze so we can empathize with him.
Tackling a role devoid of complexity, Washington adds extra wattage to his performance as if to compensate for his character’s vacuousness. He twirls his mouth in frustration and bares his teeth in anger, but his acting is ultimately unsatisfying because those facials tricks are there to make us forget that precious little is going on inside. (For all that mouth-twirling and tooth-baring, Washington was nominated for an Academy Award and received the Best Actor prize at the Berlin Film Festival.)
Much worse is the ungainly sight of a trio of Canadians (Liev Schreiber, Deborah Kara Unger, and John Hannah), who are so pathologically nice they should have all been committed to a lunatic asylum. Instead, the three Mountie wannabes end up in New Jersey doing their utmost to save Carter. (According to New York Times investigative reporter Selwyn Raab, all the evidence that led to Carter’s freedom was unearthed by his defense lawyers – not by any goody-goody Canadians.)
The film’s non-linear narrative, 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 Hurricane. Apart from that, Jewison’s anti-intolerance diatribe is all impassioned speechifying, slow-motion fighting, grinding teeth, and hokey lines of the type “You sound more like a man every day.”
By opting to dumb down the complex story of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, Jewison and screenwriters Gordon and Bernstein have thrown away the opportunity to present a serious – and, in this age of Patriot acts, quite relevant – indictment of the U.S. justice system.
Of interest: In a December 28, 1999, New York Times article, Selwyn Raab states that 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.”
In the same New York Times article, Raab added that there never was a racist Javert-like cop, and decried the manner in which Carter’s hardly squeaky-clean early life was sanitized.
THE HURRICANE (1999). Dir.: Norman Jewison. Cast: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber, John Hannah, Dan Hedaya, Debbi Morgan, Clancy Brown, Harris Yulin, David Paymer, Rod Steiger. Scr.: Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon; from Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’s The 16th Round, and Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton’s Lazarus and the Hurricane
Academy Award Nomination
Best Actor: Denzel Washington