Friday, January 14, 2000

Shadow boxing

Movie: The Hurricane

Posted on Fri, Jan 14, 2000 at 4:00 AM

***1/2
Our Rating: 3.50

"Facts don't do what I want them to," sang David Byrne 20 years ago on Talking Heads' "Remain in Light" album. Norman Jewison, director of the earnest "The Hurricane," was apparently as frustrated by some of the facts surrounding the true story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the boxer who was framed for murder and spent nearly two decades in prison before being exonerated and released in 1985.

According to a scathing report in the New York Times, Jewison -- who won an Oscar for his 1967 race-relations drama, "In the Heat of the Night" -- had such distaste for the straight story of Carter (here portrayed magnificently by Denzel Washington) that he elected to take drastic measures. With the help of screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, it's alleged, he simply dispensed with a few of the truths that got in the way of a good story.

Some the most notable discrepancies: In reality, the fighter was nailed by a racist system, not just the one corrupt cop (a menacing Dan Hedaya) who's seen in the film. Carter's attorneys (portrayed on screen by David Paymer and Harris Yulin) did much more to earn him his freedom than the three Canadians -- Lisa (Deborah Kara Unger), Sam (Liev Schrieber) and Terry (John Hannah) -- who took an interest in the case. Those good-hearted helpers were actually part of a commune, and were not merely easygoing roommates, as the film suggests. Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), the teenage boy from inner-city New Jersey who stayed with the Toronto three and formed a long-distance friendship with the convict, eventually fled the group because of his guardians' manipulative practices. And Carter later married and divorced Lisa, which isn't alluded to in Jewison's version.

So "The Hurricane" isn't fit for the History Channel. Neither were Oliver Stone's "Nixon" or "JFK," to name but two biopics that took liberties when their storylines demanded it. It was Carter's spirit (bolstered by Lisa's long-lasting emotional support) that allowed the man to hang on to his dignity -- and a sliver or two of hope -- long enough to outlast the horrific injustices he was dealt. And it's that spirit, embodied by Washington in perhaps his best performance ever, that allows Jewison's movie to rise far above the level of the standard based-on-a-true-story drama.

Gritty, black-and-white boxing footage (shot evocatively by cinematographer Roger Deakins) immediately pulls viewers into "The Hurricane," and is then followed by a glimpse of Carter's fate: Images of the distraught fighter in a prison cell. Just as quickly, the action shifts to Lesra's discovery of the boxer's autobiography, "The Sixteenth Round," at a book sale in Toronto. The story becomes the young man's bible, a guide for living.

Jewison proceeds to take his time with the narrative, allowing the momentum to slip on more than one occasion. He works through the events that lead to Carter's arrest in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., and alternates between sequences that detail his misery in prison and others that focus on the warm-and-fuzzy bonding that ensues between Lesra and Carter's Canadian rescuers.

Our own emotional involvement in the story doesn't become as clear until the conclusion, which is sure to soften the heart of even the most jaded moviegoer. There's one person to credit for those feelings: Washington, who may well grab an Oscar for his efforts. If so, it'll be much deserved.

And that's the truth.

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