Canadians play key role in parable of human spirit

Published March 1, 2000

Denzel Washington plays `Hurricane’ Carter, who was wrongly jailed for murder.

IT BEGINS as a movie about boxing and ends up as a parable of the human spirit. Based on the real life story of boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane packs a lot of story telling into its almost two and a half hours: from ring side action to courtroom drama, from police investigations to spiritual enlightenment, this movie seeks to inspire its audience. It is successful.

Academy Award winner Denzel Washington plays Carter, a man who rose above his troubled youth to become, in the late 1950s, a top contender for winning the middle-weight boxing title. His dreams were destroyed when he was accused of a triple murder and sentenced to three natural life terms in prison. Turning his anger into creative action, Carter, from prison, wrote his autobiography The Sixteenth Round and although his case became well known and publicized, he was unable to have his conviction overturned.

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The Hurricane

Directed by Norman Jewison

Starring Denzel Washington

*** (out of five)

Adult Accompaniment ? coarse language

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It’s years later in Canada that a young Brooklyn-born African American boy Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon) finds a copy of Carter’s autobiography at a Toronto library book sale. Lesra has come to live in Toronto with three social activists: Terry Swinton (John Hannah); Lisa Peters (Deborah Kara Unger) and Sam Chaiton (Liev Schreiber). Lesra is fascinated by Carter’s story, cannot understand why an innocent man should be imprisoned, and convinces his guardians to take up Carter’s case. They move to New Jersey, investigate the circumstances of Carter’s conviction, and work with the lawyers to appeal the case again. Finally, a judge hears the new evidence and releases Carter.

Although the movie has been criticized for distorting the facts of the legal battles and circumstances of Carter’s life, one must allow a certain poetic license for filmmakers. Most movies based on actual events include some fictionalization. The Hurricane is not a documentary: Jewison has made Carter’s life story into a parable of personal transformation through hope and love.

The central images of the film are of Carter in prison, and Lesra at home. Carter is unwavering in his knowledge of his innocence, and rather than giving in to the despair of the penitentiary (watch for a neat cameo performance by Al Waxman as the prison warden) he defines himself on his own terms and waits in hope for his release. Lesra, having been born in poverty and cynical about what life holds, connects with Rubin Carter’s story: it is as if Carter’s autobiography has been written just for him. Their relationship is what this film is all about. It is a parable of hope, of joy through sorrow, of the necessity of waiting for the right moment.

The film does have its problems. The nature of Lesra’s adopted family in Toronto is never explained in a satisfactory way; the character of Detective Vincent Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), Carter’s nemesis is two dimensional and not fully developed.

But the relationship between Lesra and Carter is enough reason to see the film and discuss it. In a touching moment, Carter describes how Lesra’s name is short for Lazarus, the one Jesus raised from the dead.

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was raised from the dead too, because a young man believed in him.

Denzel Washington turns in an incredible performance. Carter’s faith, his hope and his love shine through this film. It is an inspiring and emotional tribute to those who know that believing can make a difference.

Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.

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