We all have talents that mystify other people -- some folks can work complex
equations in their heads, others can run for miles without getting short of
breath, and we all know some show-off who can cartwheel like there's no
tomorrow. I can't do any of that stuff, but I do know Bob Dylan's
eight-minute ballad "Hurricane" off by heart. Impressive, eh?
The song is the first track on Dylan's 1975 album "Desire", and tells the
story of Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, a black middleweight boxer from New Jersey
who angered intolerant locals with his cocky handling of success. In 1966,
when the authorities saw a chance to frame him for murder, they jumped at it.
"How can the life of such a man be in the palm of some fool's hand?" Dylan
asked, and for quite some time Ellen Burstyn, Muhammad Ali and a whole host
of other celebrities and activists were equally concerned.
Despite his status as a cause célèbre, though, it took twenty years for
Carter and his co-defendant to be released from prison. When they were,
according to Norman Jewison's film "The Hurricane", it was largely due to the
efforts of a commune of Canadians and a young boy they were schooling. The
kid, Lesra Martin (Viscellous Reon Shannon), had bought Carter's
autobiography for twenty-five cents at a used book sale. This event changed
the course of both his life and that of the fighter.
Carter (Denzel Washington), as Lesra discovers from his reading and we learn
in the film, had an upbringing heavily influenced by racial persecution, and
vowed to make weapons out of his body and mind. In prison, his shell grows
harder, and he becomes a vessel of mistrust and hate. "There's no more Rubin
Carter," he says in his book. To his wife: "I'm dead. Move on. Bury me."
Somehow Lesra is able to strike up a correspondence with him; he DOES feel
alive when he's writing, because he doesn't have to look at the dehumanising
prison walls. The communication develops into friendship and love, and
results in the boy and his surrogate family dedicating their lives to
Carter's appeal. One of the most involving things about "The Hurricane" is
how it demonstrates the power of the written word -- showing that it can free
souls, stimulate emotions and overcome violence and evil. Another is its
portrayal of how Rubin, who had so thoroughly trained himself to use hatred
as a means of survival, earned liberation by having the courage to feel love
This is fantastic material -- the kind of thing we're talking about when we
refer to "triumphs of the human spirit". It's regrettable that Jewison has
not presented it with more panache. Gone is the powerful staccato rhythm of
Dylan, and instead we get such ludicrous dialogue as "You're going down,
punk!" and "Jeez... you're having a smoke for breakfast?" There are tears,
speeches behind bars and far too much sentimental scoring. Dan Hedaya gives a
ludicrous performance as a corrupt cop who lurks in corners grimacing and
The movie is made with such lack of edge that at times it runs the risk of
alienating us, like a made-for-TV weepie. But the story somehow survives, and
remains potent, and that is a testament to how great a tale it is. Just as
'Hurricane' himself championed over oppressive forces, so too does his legend
transcend a sloppy telling, and remain one worth knowing.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic