Norman Jewison Norman Jewison: "Hurricane" - For a Country That Needs Heroes

The true story of boxer Rubin Carter, a victim of the racist US justice system. Meant well, made well - but a bit too rounded at the corners.

Von Nataly Bleuel

The films that served as instructional tracts shown to us when we were kids featured characters named "Karius" (for cavities) and "Baktus" (bacteria). Later, we were shown footage taken at the concentration camps. These were lessons for the vast majority of us. We were doing fine, we could read and write, and pedagogical and moral films on the discrepancy between the constitution and institutionalized racism weren't necessarily needed. In the US, it's different. Almost 16 percent of all those beginning school are illiterate and two thirds of those in prison are either black or Hispanic. Over here, very few need to say, like the street kid Lesra in "The Hurricane", that he or she is the third best student in the class - although he or she can neither read nor write. That's why the US has moral school masters like Steven Spielberg or Norman Jewison, who tell the population "political" stories. They're about good and evil, show the world cast in black and white and avoid gray zones at all costs - so that even an idiot will understand them.

"The Hurricane" is a mix of the pleasant Karius and Baktus and the horrifying concentration camp footage. Smoothly directed by all Hollywood standards, of course, but: a political message deftly packaged without any truly irritating elements. The film tells the authentic story of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter who was sentenced in 1967 to life in prison for the murders of three people - murders he did not commit. A clear case of a racist miscarriage of justice the only slightly moved a nation. Bob Dylan wrote the song "Hurricane", the civil rights movement was in full swing, and Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali became icons of a newly awakened black self-consciousness. But it was only 20 years later that Carter would be released. Today, he's 62 years old, lives with his white "lifesaver" and takes up the cause of the falsely accused.

The director makes a prototypical hero out of Carter. A good man, humiliated as a child, starts boxing, loses - for racial reasons - an important fight, is chased all his life by a white racist cop, becomes an ascetic, quasi-Buddhist hero while behind bars and, thanks to the intervention of three Canadians, is released after all. The very gifted, smooth and smart Denzel Washington plays Rubin Carter who, when he enters prison, refuses to exchange the street clothes of an innocent man for the "guilty" prison uniform, manages to obtain permission, and so, spends his entire years as a prisoner on screen wearing chic turtleneck sweaters, African fabrics and the rimless glasses of an intellectual.

The other narrative thread is spun around Lesra, black and from Brooklyn, who's taken in by the three Canadian members of a commune - the boy is to go to college. He reads his first book (The 16th Round by Carter), is immediately politicized, makes contact with Carter in prison and sets his appeal before the Supreme Court in motion. The helpers move from Canada to a neighborhood near the prison in order to carry out their fight at close range. One senses a slight bit of flirting going on between Lisa and Rubin. In reality, the two became a couple, but nothing of the kind happens in the film. The producers were evidently wary of presenting a mixed race love story to American audiences. The film demurs again in its depiction of the fatal complicity of the police, the justice system and society, which occurs almost off to the side. There is no shocking moment of realization as in other courtroom dramas such as "Sacco and Vanzetti". It probably would have been too confounded and complex. The sheer reach of institutionalized racism becomes streamlined down to the personification of Carter's antagonists and the mean cop Della Pasca. Angels and monsters, good and evil, black and white, either or. That's how simple it is. And so, that's how harmless it is as well.

Of course, Denzel Washington has one great scene, in solitary confinement, when he's being chased down by two schizophrenic voices (boxer, hate, evil vs. human, crying, good). And so, the Academy, the all-round US institution for absolution and compensation, has nominated him for an Oscar. At the press conference, Denzel Washington confessed that he didn't know about Rubin Carter before this film - and had never heard the name Abu Jamal. But everyone agrees: Racism is a bad thing, far off in the slums and in the prisons, where it still goes on. And if it all works out...

"The Hurricane" is a slick Hollywood melodrama, an instructional, mythologizing sentimental film somewhat based on actual events. But. It's just been reported that every fifth young German has no idea what "Auschwitz" means. Have we perhaps come so far that we need a Spielberg or a Jewison?

"The Hurricane". USA, 1999. Directed by Norman Jewison. Screenplay by Armayan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, based on the books by Rubin Carter, The 16th Round and Lazarus and Hurricane. With: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Dan Hedaya, John Hannah, Deborah Unger, Liev Schreiber and John Cale. 107 minutes.

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