Boxing In Cinema: The Hurricane
While it wasn’t covered much at the time, director Norman Jewison’s film, The Hurricane, about the railroading to a life sentence of the boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter (the great Denzel Washington), was something of an anomaly upon its 1999 release. It’s not that boxing films were rare, hell, you can create a film festival around the sweet science and have it run for days, if not weeks. What made The Hurricane so unusual is that it was about a black boxer. That may not seem strange now, with Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) and Michael B. Jordan’s Creed series having come into the world since, but a film about a black boxer was rare indeed at the turn of the last century.
How rare? To give you an example, in 2020, Paste Magazine published a list of the 50 greatest boxing movies of all time. Of those 50 films, 10 are documentaries. If we focus only on the 40 scripted dramatizations, just nine of the 40 remaining films are about a black boxer – that’s not even 25%. To further illustrate the point, four of those films about African American pugilists came after The Hurricane. Despite the long history of boxing and the dominance of black boxers from the ‘50s to the current day, the bypassing of so many fascinating fighters of color in favor of telling the stories of white fighters isn’t just mystifying, it’s derelict and indicative of the film industry’s bias.
To this day, there is no proper filmed depiction of the life of Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, or, perhaps most incredulously, Jack Johnson. To take the point even further, there are films on boxers like Mickey Ward, Vinny Pazienza, and James Braddock. To be clear, I’m not saying those films shouldn’t exist – I love The Fighter, Bleed For This, and Cinderella Man – it’s just that the balance is clearly out of whack when it comes to telling the stories of black boxers vs. that of white fighters when there are great stories of boxers of color to be told, not that you can tell by the choices Hollywood has made.
But in 1999, there was The Hurricane. The film depicts the long road to freedom traveled by Rubin Carter after the New Jersey criminal justice system overlooked, obfuscated, and flat-out lied about the evidence related to his case – a brutal shooting of a Jersey bar that left multiple patrons and the bartender dead. While it’s hard not to look at the poster of The Hurricane and not think of the film as a boxing movie, it’s actually four movies in one. It’s not that Carter’s boxing career as a middleweight contender isn’t covered (the three bouts depicted in the film are beautifully shot in silky black and white by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins), it’s just that the movie gives equal weight to Carter’s survival in prison, the courtroom drama that eventually leads to his freedom, and a touching relationship he develops with a trio of Canadians and especially Lesra (Vicellous Shannon), a young black man in their charge who writes him a letter after reading Carter’s book The 16th Round, published while he was still incarcerated.
As in all biopics, there are compressed characters, the leaving out of certain details, and there’s a certain amount of artistic license in play to further dramatize the proceedings. While this is hardly abnormal, The Hurricane suffered significant, and to my mind, excessive backlash upon its release due to the liberties taken.
Among them are:
- Leaving out a number of run-ins with the law that Carter had during his life prior to receiving a life sentence.
- Three Canadian characters in the film (well played by Liev Schreiber, Debra Kara Unger, and John Hannah) are shown as being integral in assisting with Carter’s eventual release, but most of the support they provided was emotional, not tactical.
- Carter’s military service is quickly covered as a positive experience that left him a decorated soldier after he was discharged, but the truth is Carter was expelled from the military due to being designated as “unfit” after four court martials.
- Carter’s middleweight title bout against champion Joey Giardello is shown as a dominant performance by Carter, and that his victory was stolen from him by the judges. Most boxing historians will tell you the fight was much closer and could have gone either way.
Should these embellishments be considered when taking in the movie? I suppose so. But I also know that almost every biopic takes wide liberties in telling the story of their central character. How could a film not? Think about it, how does one condense a person’s entire life into a two-hour film? It simply can’t be done – not even in a documentary. What matters most is the spirit of the truth.
And here is that truth: Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter was an exceptional fighter whose greatest fight didn’t take place in the confines of a boxing ring but from the bars of his prison cell, where he was placed by institutional racism. On those basic terms, The Hurricane works like gangbusters.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the studio had the wisdom to cast the greatest actor of this generation, Denzel Washington, in the lead. In a career full of titanic performances, Washington’s work here as Rubin Carter is among his very best. No small statement, that. But in taking in the film again last night, I am more certain than ever that Washington’s inhabiting of Carter is a truly remarkable accomplishment. Washington never makes Carter out to be a saint. He’s rough around the edges (as any man who spent nearly a decade in juvie would be) and full of too much bravado for his own good.
Washington’s commitment to playing a prizefighter is evident in how he carries himself and the transformation of his body for the film. Washington has always been an impossibly handsome man, but I dare say he never looked better physically than in The Hurricane. His body puts Greek statues to shame, and his movement in the ring, the way he throws a punch all attest to a level of commitment that goes far beyond the best efforts of mere mortals.
Denzel Washington is not a mere mortal, he’s a magician.
However, most of The Hurricane takes place away from the ring. The bulk of the film finds Washington learning how to cope with incarceration by reading books by Baldwin and Du Bois, developing a philosophy that while the state may have control over his person, they do not hold dominion over his mind – the place where he learns to live while body resides in a cell. The path to Carter’s higher level of consciousness is not an easy journey. Shortly after being taken to prison, Carter refuses to wear a prison uniform because, as he states, “I will not wear the clothes of a guilty man.” For his defiance, the warden sends Carter to solitary for 90 days, where Carter’s grip on reality becomes tenuous. After the 90 days, a kindly prison guard (played by Clancy Brown, who also portrayed “the toughest screw” in the history of the Shawshank Prison) makes a compromise. Carter can wear the pajamas that are usually reserved for inmates in the infirmary. “No stripes?” Carter asks. “No stripes,” the guard replies. It’s a small act of kindness, but one that unlocks the door to Carter’s greater path.
The remainder of the movie focuses largely on the efforts of Carter’s lawyers' efforts to overturn his sentence and his budding relationship with the young black man whose letters allow Carter to hope. I’ve often heard that hope is perhaps the best of all things, but it also comes with great risk. Nothing hurts worse than dashed hopes. After one legal setback, Washington reaches out to Lesra and the Canadians, telling them he can’t do the time and maintain a relationship with them. His heart cannot make room for hope.
But hearts can change, and upon receiving what was to be one last letter from Lesra, The Hurricane decides to fight once more. There is a scene where Carter receives a boxing robe from his new friends. Washington puts on the robe. He stands. He begins to shadowbox within the confines of his poorly lit prison cell, and I’ll be goddamned if the moment didn’t just about break me.
As good as The Hurricane is in many respects, it is very much a movie that tries hard to balance the grittiness of Carter’s awful conditions while also shoehorning in some Hollywood cornpone dialogue. But this is where the magic of Denzel Washington can cover up for a screenwriter’s sins. Near the end of the film, as Carter and Lesra are awaiting a ruling from a federal judge (perfectly played by Rod Steiger), Carter looks at Lesra and states, “Hate put me in here. Love’s gonna bust me out.” It’s a line full of Hollywood hokum, but as the words escape Washington’s mouth, well, resistance is futile. There is no suppressing the lump growing in your throat or the tear forming at the corner of your eye.
The Hurricane isn’t just a story of hope and endurance; it’s a film with the best kind of happy ending: the hard-won kind. Lord knows, Rubin Carter deserved it.