Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the former middleweight boxer who spent 19 years in prison after being framed for murder by racist police and prosecutors, was arguably one of the most important Americans of the 20th century. Thousands of other black men have been wrongfully convicted, but the celebrity and notoriety attached to Carter's case, along with the ferociously defiant spirit he displayed in battling the criminal justice system for two decades, mark him as a crucial symbolic figure. The Carter controversy focused national attention on the idea that "uppity" blacks were at risk from the authorities all over the country -- not just in the South. His plight echoes in different ways through the cases of Rodney King, Mumia Abu-Jamal, O.J. Simpson, Amadou Diallo and many others. If Norman Jewison's ungainly but likable film "The Hurricane" ultimately isn't equal to the bigness and complexity of its subject, that only proves that sometimes real life is too outrageous for the movies.
After much creaking and laboring, Jewison (whose workmanlike 36-year career ranges from "In the Heat of the Night" to "Moonstruck") finally delivers the powerful emotional catharsis every miscarriage-of-justice movie demands. Along the way we get a tedious side trip to Canada in the mode of an ABC "After-School Special" and some black-and-white boxing footage that nods in the direction of "Raging Bull." But for all the honesty and effort of Jewison's filmmaking, his most important task in "The Hurricane" is simply turning on the camera and pointing it at Denzel Washington.
As Carter, Washington is playing to his known strengths as an actor -- stoicism, integrity and that ineffable centered quality one can only call spirituality -- rather than venturing into new territory. Nevertheless, it's his best role, a towering and engrossing performance of Shakespearean range, immensity and intensity. For all the power in his body, Washington's real actorly control lies in his emotions; he vibrates like a tuning fork.
Carter begins as a purely physical presence, a youthful swaggerer driven by lust and violence, and ends as a middle-aged monastic, so enclosed within his own spirit and psyche that he's no longer sure the outside world exists at all. Don't be surprised if Washington gets a best-actor Oscar to go with the best-supporting one he already has -- and becomes the first black man to take home the best-actor statuette since Sidney Poitier won for "Lilies of the Field" in 1963.
Washington understands Hurricane as a dynamic figure constantly in motion (both physically and psychologically) rather than a fixed point. If the screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon creates an overly schematic division between Carter the brawler and Carter the thinker, Washington visibly embodies this internal struggle, from his impressively muscled physique to the deep horizontal furrows of his brow. He even gracefully handles a potentially embarrassing scene in which Carter -- confined in solitary for his refusal to wear prison clothes -- actually fragments into three distinct personalities, one violent, one rational, one fearful. As fine as he is, however, even Washington cannot rescue such simple-minded lines of dialogue as, "Hate put me in prison -- love's gonna bust me out."
Carter was a highly ranked middleweight contender at the time of his arrest following a 1966 barroom shooting in his grimy hometown of Paterson, N.J. In some ways, he made a plausible murderer, especially for what appeared to be a racially motivated killing spree with white victims. He was a tough kid from a tough neighborhood; his nickname derived from the fury and brutality of his boxing style. He also had a prison record and was known for his outspoken views on racial issues. In the film, for example, when police detain him on the night of the murders and tell him they are looking for two Negroes in a white car, Carter quips, "Any two will do?" In a bitterly polarized small city like Paterson, it wasn't much of a challenge for prosecutors to convince an all-white jury to bring the loudmouth local boy down a few notches, no matter how sketchy the evidence.
Sentenced to three life terms, Carter loudly protested his innocence, refusing to conform to prison routine, writing a bestselling book and attracting celebrities such as Bob Dylan and Ellen Burstyn to his cause. He won the right to a new trial -- and was convicted again. The famous names drifted away, but Carter's correspondence with a teenager brought a trio of Canadian activists to the case who finally unearthed compelling evidence that the original trial was fatally undermined by racism, false testimony and concealed evidence. In 1985, a federal judge threw out the conviction and ordered Carter freed. (He now lives in Canada, where he runs an organization devoted to helping other wrongfully convicted prisoners.)
Bernstein and Gordon's screenplay is based on two quite different books: Carter's prison-authored autobiography, "The Sixteenth Round," and "Lazarus and the Hurricane," by two of the Canadians, Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, about the extraordinary relationship that finally led to Carter's release. Even in a fairly long movie, there's just no room for all that exposition. Jewison's approach initially seems dense and fascinating as he intercuts several different levels of narrative into a continuous weave. Over the course of a few minutes, we get black-and-white scenes from Carter's '60s fights; a scene, probably from the '70s, of Carter having an unexplained breakdown in Trenton State Prison; and a kid named Lesra, sometime around 1980, finding Carter's autobiography at a library sale in Toronto. (Why black-and-white for the colorized '60s? Your guess is as good as mine.) In the hands of cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose many films include "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Fargo," this all looks terrific. But it doesn't really get us anywhere.
Once we've spent enough time with Lesra (played by the agreeable young actor Vicellous Reon Shannon) to understand why a black kid from Brooklyn is living with some white Canadian leftists, we've lost track of young Rubin and his lifelong struggle with a racist Paterson cop named Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya). Then again, once we're caught up on Carter's story, we've forgotten about his Zen-like prison demeanor and his cagey friendship with a guard (Clancy Brown). Clearly the emotional center of the film is Carter's deepening father-son relationship with Lesra, which gradually leads Carter to abandon his stoical isolation and trust individual white people -- Lesra's guardians -- for virtually the first time in his life. (For the Canadian-born Jewison, who has made several films with racial themes, the idea that it took visitors from the Northland to right a distinctively American wrong is no doubt significant.)
But Sam (Liev Schreiber), Terry (John Hannah) and Lisa (Deborah Kara Unger) aren't in "The Hurricane" long enough to seem like more than bland, wholesome ciphers. Only the luminous Unger, with her chain-smoking and her array of neurotic gestures, seems like a specific person rather than a type.
In life, I'm sure the process by which these three unusual people came to know Rubin Carter -- the process that ultimately saved him from dying in prison -- was full of tension and drama. But this movie never explains what their relationship to each other and the world is, or why Lesra and Carter mean so much to them. Never mind; for all its weaknesses, "The Hurricane" delivers a mighty emotional load, most of it borne on the broad shoulders of a great actor hitting his prime.