'Hurricane' Carter: The man they couldn't tame

April 5, 2000


The man they couldn't tame

The Hurricane
Starring Denzel Washington and Vicellous Reon Shannon
Directed by Norman Jewison
Written by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon
Universal Pictures

Review by Arun Pradhan

"My real problems began when the Saturday Evening Post printed what I said about the Harlem fruit riot that took place in April 1964. I said that black people ought to protect themselves against the invasions of white cops in black neighbourhoods", Rubin Carter told Penthouse magazine in an interview from his prison cell in 1982.

After that, Carter became the victim of consistent police harassment and threats. He was not alone — the racism of the US police force was to become a focus for the growing civil rights movement. But for Carter, this harassment went to the next stage in 1966 when he and his friend John Artis were wrongly convicted for a triple murder, for which they were to serve 19 years in jail.

Before his arrest Carter was reaching his prime as the main contender for the middleweight boxing championship. A boxing promoter labelled him the "Hurricane", an uncontrollable force of nature thought to suit a black ex-convict.

Ironically, Carter himself preferred the name "panther", several years before activists were to use the term in a political sense and launch the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence. However, as always, the marketing people had their way and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter he became.

Racist conviction

On the night of the triple homicide, Carter was unlucky enough, as he put it, to be "wearing a coat and be black". This, along with driving a car similar to that seen at the crime, was enough for him to arrested.

At this point nobody, including the only surviving witness, had identified him or Artis. Carter even passed a lie detector test. It was not until five months later, with the testimony of two white ex-convicts, that they were bought to trial and found guilty by an all-white jury.

Carter's case fed into growing mass anger and was reflected in mainstream culture. Many were introduced to Carter's case came by the classic and passionate song by Bob Dylan. Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxing champion and at the time a follower of the radical Nation of Islam, would dedicate fights to Carter and became co-chairperson of the Hurricane fund.

Hurricane the movie stars Denzel Washington and does justice to the essential story of Carter's life. The writers have attempted to capture both the injustice behind Carter's imprisonment and the inspiration which many drew from his example.

In this the movie is largely successful. It jumps different perspectives and different times without losing the story's thread. Washington rises to the challenge in a project that has obviously meant a lot to him.

Washington is friends with Carter and had previously tried to buy the rights to his story. He spent six months training for the role, and it shows.

'Artistic licence'

The screen play draws on Carter's autobiography and Lazarus and the Hurricane, written about Lesra Martin and his role in Carter's fight for freedom.

A black, illiterate 16-year-old, Martin was "adopted" in 1979 by a group of nine white Canadians who lived in a mansion in Toronto. The film abbreviates this to three, who were to eventually moved to New Jersey to work on Carter's appeal after Martin read Carter's book and became absorbed in his story.

The appeal was heard by a federal judge in 1985, who said that evidence had previously been withheld and that the initial conviction was based on "racism not reason".

In real life, the judgement did not rely on this new evidence, as is claimed in the movie, nor were the Canadians directly threatened by police or have a near-death accident. Neither did Carter make an impassioned last-minute speech.

James Hirch, who has written a new authorised biography of Carter, apparently digs more into the complexities of relationships that the movie brushes over. The movie only hints at a growing, sometimes conflicting relationship between Carter and the leader of the Canadian group, Lisa Peters, who he eventually married.

After living with the Canadians, Carter recently left them and Peters, saying that although he had the utmost respect for them and what they did, he felt as though he had become their "trophy horse".

So read the book if you want the gritty details. But I for one am glad that the movie navigated away from such intrigue and focussed on the essence of Carter's story.

It will make you feel incredibly angry at what has happened, it will make you inspired at Carter's ability to survive and other people's preparedness to fight — and don't expect to leave the cinema with dry eyes.

Perhaps the best thing about this movie, however, is its timing. Carter's story is clearly a tragedy and an offence to justice, as are similar cases involving Mumia Abu-Jamal or Leonard Peltier. But, at a time when mandatory sentencing has hit centre stage in Australia, it is a sharp reminder about the broader story of a racist "justice" system.

Rubin Carter, who now works for prisoners who were wrongly convicted, will never get those decades back, which is a crime — but at the very least his story has been told. When watching the movie, spare some time in thinking about those nameless statistics that are being arrested right here, right now.

Jamie Wurramurra, an Aboriginal man sentenced to a year for stealing a packet of biscuits, is unlikely to have Bob Dylan write a song about him, or Denzel Washington portray him in a Hollywood blockbuster. But cases like Jamie's are a desperate reminder that the battle fought by civil rights protestors in the 1960s is far from over.

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