(1999) Biographical Drama (Universal) Denzel Washington, Deborah Kara Unger, John Hannah, Liev Schreiber, Dan Hedaya, Rod Steiger, Debbi Morgan, Clancy Brown, Vicellious Reon Shannon, David Paymer, Harris Yulin, Vincent Pastore. Directed by Norman Jewison
One of the most notorious injustices of the 20th century was the incarceration of boxer and former middleweight champion Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Washington). Sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for the murders of three white people in the Lafayette Bar in Patterson, New Jersey, Carter – a proud black man – loudly proclaimed his innocence but remained jailed for more than 20 years. Corruption, racial prejudice and legal chicanery kept him there.
In his cell, Carter, a strong-spirited intellectual, deprived himself of everything that could potentially be taken away from him, retaining only his heart, his mind and his soul – things that were his alone to control. Shutting out all those who loved him, Carter’s pride and dignity created a prison for himself of a different kind, one which allowed him to survive his ordeal. Still, even those strong walls he created for himself were crumbling in the insidious bonds of despair.
Into his life comes young Lesra Martin (Shannon), a young man deeply touched by Carter’s prison-penned autobiography. Martin had been “adopted” by three white Canadian idealists – Sam Chaiton (Schreiber), Terry Swinton ( Hannah) and Lisa Peters (Unger), who taught Martin how to read and write. Martin is moved to write to Carter, who begins a correspondence with him. He gives Carter hope – hope quickly dashed by the New Jersey courts.
Realizing that their new friend can’t survive much longer in prison, the Canadians and Lesra move to New Jersey, determined to free Carter. Despite the scarcity of witnesses willing to testify, despite the coldness of the trail they follow and despite veiled threats of bodily harm, they soldier on, convinced of Carter’s innocence. They eventually find the evidence they seek but is it enough to free a man who has by now become a liability to the corrupt officials who originally imprisoned him?
Washington is sensational as Carter. He is absolutely riveting to watch, portraying one of the most complex individuals ever seen on the screen. He is a young man filled with rage and hatred; he is a middle-aged man dead to all emotion, he is an older man filled with wisdom and enlightenment. He grows throughout the course of this movie, and each change rings true every step of the way. Whenever Washington is onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off him.
This is a very affecting movie; Da Queen gave it three hankies, and would have made it four but ran out of napkins. Everyone in the theater was snuffling, particularly during a late-in-the-movie exchange between Carter and Martin. The supporting cast is swell too; Schreiber, Hannah and Unger are terrific, Dan Hedaya as a cop and Rod Steiger as a judge are fantastic, but Shannon is amazing here. I thought he had a very promising future, but that hasn’t panned out up to now.
The Norman Jewison was at the top of his game here. Never a flashy director, he was content to let the story tell itself without distracting the audience with parlor tricks. He does that here too, utilizing a lot of standard camera shots but never going the razzle dazzle route. With a story as intriguing as this one, those things aren’t needed and would actually detract from the impact of the film and Jewison was a seasoned pro who recognized that.
Most of the problems here are minor; for one thing, the movie drags during the middle portion when Carter adjusts to his imprisonment. Also, Carter is sometimes too good to be true. In real life, he was a man prone to violence and very suspicious of whites. He had problems controlling his temper and was sometimes thug-like in his behavior. He had served time for robbery and was dishonorably discharged from the military, not a conquering hero returning from war. There is contraversy still that the movie was little more than a pro-Carter propaganda piece and there is plenty of evidence that he actually did commit the crimes he was accused of. However, it must also be said that there are many who feel that the evidence was inconclusive and mostly circumstantial. Even so while some of his faults are alluded to Carter remains a fascinating subject for a movie. His ordeal makes for compelling drama. It seems almost unspeakable that he had to endure what he did. What will be the test of our culture in the years to come is that there be no more Rubin Carters. However, human nature being what it is, we have a long way to go until we get there.
WHY RENT THIS: Incendiary performance by Washington and fine supporting work by Shannon, Unger, Hannah and Schreiber. Compelling cautionary tale.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Glosses over the not-so-nice part of Carter’s personality.
FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scenes of violence and a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The picture of Malcolm X in Carter’s cell was actually a still photograph of Washington playing Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film Malcolm X.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $74.0M on a $50M budget; the movie was unprofitable during it’s theatrical run.
FINAL RATING: 9/10