We're looking for two Negroes in a white car.
Any two will do?
On the night of June 17th in 1966, several shots rang out from the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, claiming the lives of two men and a woman. In the aftermath of the shooting, the police arrested two Negroes in a white car, based on eyewitness accounts of two men seen speeding away from the crime scene. The two men were Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, the current number one contender for the middleweight boxing crown, and a young fan, John Artis, who were on their way home. However, the lone survivor of the Lafayette shootings, William Marins, was unable to identify Carter and Artis as the shooters, which prompted the police to drop the two men from their list of suspects.
Over the next few months, Carter and Artis testified before several grand juries and were cleared of all charges each time. However, on October 14th of that same year, the prosecution produced two witnesses, known felons Alfred P. Bello and Arther D. Bradley, who claimed that they had seen Carter and Artis exiting the Lafayette Bar and Grill immediately after the shooting. As a result, on May 27th of the following year, an all-white jury convicted Carter and Artis to three consecutive life sentences each.
Over the next decade, Carter continued the fight to vindicate himself while behind the walls of the Rahway State Prison, despite being subjected to constant harassment and an illegal transfer to a state psychiatric hospital. In 1974, Carter's autobiographical book "The Sixteenth Round" was published, which renewed public awareness and interest in his ongoing persecution by the New Jersey legal establishment. Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan was one of Carter's many supporters, and in 1975, he recorded the song "Hurricane" which further raised awareness for Carter's cause.
I'm innocent... I've committed no crime. A crime has been committed against me.
Unfortunately, Carter would not be vindicated for at least another decade, despite the public outcry. Though the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the original convictions in 1976, a second trial had Carter and Artis re-convicted, who were then returned to prison to serve out the remainder of their sentences. In addition, Bello and Bradley, the only 'witnesses' who put the two men at the Lafayette, separately recanted their testimony, and stated that they had been coerced by Paterson detectives into providing false testimony.
Fast-forwarding to the early 1980s, Lesra Martin, a troubled Brooklyn teenager studying in Toronto, Canada, picked up a copy of "The Sixteenth Round" from a used book sale. Inspired by what he read, Lesra began writing letters to Carter, and eventually found the courage to travel to New Jersey to meet his new role model face-to-face. Convinced that he was innocent of the three murders that he had been accused of, Lesra began a campaign to free Carter with the help of nine Canadians with whom he was staying with in Toronto. The story of Lesra and the ex-boxer, and the campaign that eventually freed 'The Hurricane' after nineteen years of wrongful incarceration was documented in the book "Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Untold Story of the Freeing of Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter" in 1991.
The release of this highly acclaimed book then resulted in a bidding war among rival studios to bring the story to the screen, with writer/producer Armyan Bernstein eventually securing the rights. Norman Jewison (who directed the original "The Thomas Crown Affair") was brought on to direct, Denzel Washington ("The Bone Collector") was signed on for the lead role, and the end result is "The Hurricane", an epic biography that dramatizes the triumphs and tragedies of Carter's wrongful incarceration. In addition to being Jewison's best film in over a decade (since his Academy Award-winning "Moonstruck"), "The Hurricane" also easily ranks as one of the year's best.
Do you believe that black punk? He believes that he's champion of the world!
The majority of the film takes place during two time periods, the early Sixties, when Carter's (Washington) dreams of becoming the middleweight champion are crushed by his racially-motivated arrest, and the early Eighties, when Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon of "Can't Hardly Wait") becomes a dedicated foot-soldier to Carter's cause. Through several well-edited flashbacks, we are shown Carter's numerous run-ins with the law, how it spurred him on to become a top-ranked boxer who wanted, for once in his life, to control his own destiny, and how it laid the foundation for his eventual persecution. It is here that Jewison meticulously recreates Carter's career bouts, effusing the sequences with a style that recalls the striking cinematography of "Raging Bull".
In the present, we are shown a Rubin Carter who has been hardened by years spent in prison. After years of fighting the system and failing, he is no longer optimistic about his outcome, and has turned inward in order to find peace. Lesra, who becomes inspired by Carter's words, unwittingly returns the favor by restoring Carter's sense of hope and faith in humanity. Unfortunately, the struggle to free 'The Hurricane' is not an easy task. Though Lesra enlists the help of his Canadian hosts (Lieve Schreiber of "Jakob the Liar", John Hannah of "The Mummy", and Deborah Kara Unger of "Payback"), there are a number of men in the New Jersey legal system who have built their careers at Carter's expense, particularly Detective Vincent Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya of "In & Out"), and who will stop at nothing to put an end to Lesra's crusade.
Hate put me in prison... love's gonna bust me out.
"The Hurricane" garnered a three-minute standing ovation when it premiered at the 1999 Toronto International Film festival (an event attended by Rubin Carter himself), and such praise is justly deserved. Though the material covered in the film would feel at home on the small screen as a made-for-TV movie, Jewison infuses his passion for social consciousness into the story, creating an engaging and inspiring piece of celluloid that shows how love and dedication can overcome hate and injustice. It has been a long time since Jewison has used his craft on such weighty and socially conscious material (as he did in "In the Heat of the Night" and "A Soldier's Story"), and it is good to see this veteran director returning to 'first principles'. However, despite its importance, Jewison does not let the racial aspect of the story completely dominate the film-- he also cultivates the story's emotional center, the relationship between Carter and Lesra. The scenes between these two characters are touchingly executed, and go a long way in effectively conveying the themes that are near and dear to the heart of the story.
Despite the emotional weight of the story, Jewison still manages to lighten the mood with some welcome bits of humor, particularly a number of pointed observations and in-jokes about his native Canada (Jewison is also the founder of the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto). Canadians will enjoy the numerous observations that the American characters make about the Lesra's Canadian friends, as well as a great scene in which a gift for Carter is wrapped in a gift box from the recently bankrupt Eaton's department store chain.
Washington has been a long-time admirer of Carter, and for many years, he did whatever he could to play what he considered the role of a lifetime. Back in 1991 when Carter's story was the subject of heavy bidding between studios, Washington put his own hat in the ring in the hopes of having his own production company bring the 'Hurricane' Carter story to life. After being outbid, Washington then made an impassioned plea to writer/producer Armyan Bernstein for the lead role, which was quickly granted. Not surprisingly, Washington's dedication and admiration for Carter is evident in the superb performance he delivers, in which he effortlessly handles the range demanded in playing a character who has been pushed to the limits from languishing in prison for almost two decades. It is difficult to imagine another actor doing a better job.
Playing Carter's complement is Shannon, who acquits himself nicely playing a character who comes of age during the film, transforming from an insecure and angry teenager to a young man who finds peace with himself and a sense of purpose while trying to free his mentor. Playing the 'three Canadians', Schreiber, Unger, and Hannah are adequate to the task, though the script uses them almost interchangeably, giving each of these accomplished actors little opportunity to create truly memorable characters. Other notable performances include Hedaya as Carter's 'dirty cop' nemesis, and Rod Steiger ("End of Days") as a Federal judge in the film's heart-wrenching finale.
"The Hurricane" easily ranks among the best films of 1999, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some Oscar nominations go towards this terrific film, particularly in the Best Film, Best Director, or Best Actor categories. Though this powerfully told film illustrates how racial hatred can allow great injustices to persist, even in this modern day, it also shows us that such hatred is no match for the power of the human spirit, or the selfless devotion borne out of friendship.
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put in a prison cell but one time
He coulda been the Champion of the World...
- "Hurricane" (Bob Dylan)