DENZEL WASHINGTON'S intense and tender performance brings a tragic miscarriage of justice home in "The Hurricane."
Too bad about the Canadians in the movie. I'll explain later.
On June 17, 1966, middleweight boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and driving companion John Artis were erroneously picked up in Paterson, N.J., for a triple murder.
Despite passing lie detector tests, despite being exonerated by several grand juries, they were indicted for the murders, thanks in large part to testimony from Alfred P. Bello and Arthur D. Bradley, who claimed to have seen them leaving the crime scene with guns.
When an all-white jury pronounced them guilty the following year, Carter and Artis were sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. Despite many legal appeals, Bello and Bradley's later recantation and an enormous barrage of publicity in Carter's favor (including the well-known song by Bob Dylan), Carter remained in prison for two decades before justice prevailed.
Artis was released after 15 years. Carter was ultimately saved by the efforts of his defense lawyers, Myron Beldock, Lewis Steel and Leon Friedman, with the paralegal assistance of nine committed members of a Canadian commune that helped bring Carter's case before Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin. The judge threw out the murder convictions on the grounds that they were racially motivated. Carter finally saw daylight again in 1988.
The movie, based on Carter's 1974 autobiography "The Sixteenth Round" and the Canadians' 1991 account of his release, "Lazarus and the Hurricane," starts with the summer evening that changed Carter's life: an enjoyable time spent in Carter's favorite bar.
When Artis (Garland Whitt), a fan of Carter, offers the middleweight a ride home, Carter (Washington) accepts. But on the way, they're stopped for a familiar moving violation in Paterson: driving while black.
By the time this movie ends, Carter has been in jail for more than 20 years and he has become lifelong friends with Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a young African American who has read Carter's autobiography, and three Canadians (including one played by Liev Schreiber) whom Lesra has persuaded to help with the case -- long after all seems hopeless. (Apparently, nine helpmates are just too many characters for one movie.)
Director Norman Jewison's movie is, for the most part, a pleasurable experience -- if pleasurable entertainment is the appropriate way to think of Carter's institutionally wasted life.
At its best, it's about Carter's battle for serenity, the way that he tames his anger and ultimately overcomes the emotional enslavement of his sentence. Washington, who trained a year for the physical requirements, is thoroughly believable as a man whose pride was his boxing but who is forced to counter-punch spiritually.
Unfortunately, according to a recent New York Times article by the reporter who covered the trials, the movie ignores the work of Carter's defense lawyers and exaggerates the role of the Canadians. It also airbrushes the real Carter, whose extramarital transgressions and four years of imprisonment for some muggings are kept out of the movie. Facts aside, the Canadian side of the story -- the script was written by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon -- is the movie's undoing. "The Hurricane" switches increasingly between Carter in his prison cell and Lesra.
Lesra lives in Canada with two men (Shreiber and John Hannah) and one woman (Deborah Kara Unger), who befriended him in New York and offered to pay for his education, provided he live up north with them.
Of course, there's nothing untoward about unslaked human kindness; but, in this movie, the Canadians come across as a strangely one-dimensional group of Hardy Boy liberals. They always seem to do everything together, whether it's reading books, playing chess or cooking. They're always smiling indulgently and supporting everything the others say. They live in such a goofy, sweet atmosphere, you wonder if they pump the house full of nitrous oxide every morning. Is Carter wrongly imprisoned? What do you say we rescue Lesra's positive role model, eh?
In the end, Carter's serenity depends not only on his ability to withstand the outrage that America has perpetrated on his civil rights, but also on his ability to tolerate the prison visits of his goofy benefactors. After all, if he hangs in there with them, they just might get him freed.
THE HURRICANE (R, 146 minutes) -- Contains boxing and police violence and strong language. AMC Academy 8, Hoyts Potomac Yard 16, General Cinema Mazza Gallerie.