Incarceration of the innocent is hardly a recent issue, and is certainly nothing new in the realm of cinema. While there are some truly great works of fiction, such as The Count of Monte Cristo, and of course The Shawshank Redemption, it is the non-fiction biopics that carry the added weight of real-world consequence. Although such films tend to take liberties with crucial events and those involved, Norman Jewison’s 1999 biopic The Hurricane is the rare work that justifies the minor changes to its source with a hard-hitting (if occasionally typical) narrative, and an impeccable performance from one of the greatest actors of his generation.
The Hurricane tells the story of Rubin ‘The Hurricane’ Carter (Denzel Washington), a professional boxer and outspoken advocate of African-American rights, who in 1965 is wrongfully convicted of triple homicide due to his professional and personal achievements. After having tried and failed to overturn his conviction, Carter spends almost twenty years in prison, before a young man from Brooklyn convinces his Toronto foster family to aid in Carter’s eventual exoneration.
Aside from a fitting opening that seamlessly frames Carter as a fighter both in and out of the ring, the early beats of the film play it safe with some by-the-numbers, superfluous storytelling, despite solid direction from legendary Toronto director Jewison. I feel that depicting Carter as a child, when we already know from the film’s aforementioned opening scene that the adult Carter is headed for prison, makes the story feel needlessly bloated in what is a 146 minute feature. It seems all the more wasteful given that the relevant events of his childhood might have been better served as some well-placed exposition.
Thankfully, any obvious issues with the film end here, as writers Dan Gordon and Armyan Bernstein subsequently manage to capture the tragic-yet-uplifting story of Carter, who sacrificed a great deal in the hopes of attaining what should have been rightfully his. Jewison’s occasionally impactful imagery, coupled with some truly inspiring dialogue on the power of the written word, coalesce into a movingly bittersweet tale, but it is Denzel Washington’s performance that is the real standout.
What is so astounding about Washington’s performance, is that he impeccably encapsulates the subtle shifts in Carter’s personality as the film progresses. In the earlier scenes, we are introduced to bright-eyed Rubin Carter, boxer and civil rights activist, who maintains a degree of faith in the judicial system, albeit tentatively given his African-American background. The Rubin Carter we see at the tail-end of his time in prison, however, is a different man. While the former boxer is no less motivated by his quest for justice and freedom, there is nonetheless an undeniable weight bearing down upon him, which only an actor of Washington’s talent could even hope to convey.
Even when The Hurricane wades into familiar biopic territory, Washington’s performance serves as an almost instantaneous distraction that prevents scenes from faltering in a similar fashion to the opening childhood sequence. It can sometimes get in its own and therefore falls short of masterpiece status, but the writing and directing is still very strong, and is amongst my favourite biopics of all time. Though ultimately, the film is rightfully revered as a showcase for Washington’s seemingly depthless talents, and whether he’s doling out a verbal beating on those who failed to do enough for his freedom, or offering words of wisdom to those who are wise enough to listen, he is simply mesmerising from start to finish.