THE HURRICANE: A powerful case of injustice lacking punch (2000 in Film #1)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

To begin, released over New Year 1999-2000, Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane

There is perhaps a little bit of cheating going on by including The Hurricane in a collection of 2000 movies, given it was released on December 29th, 1999. It is more of a bridge, notable as the major cinematic offering over Millennium Eve; a film that sits between cinema’s first and second centuries.

1999 was last year celebrated across film culture as among the greatest years in cinema history, with a whole range of retrospectives from articles to books to podcasts devoted to its fusion of high-concept event movies, powerful franchise films, and the big-budget legitimising of the Sundance indie-darling filmmakers who would build their careers on some of that year’s defining works. The Wachowski Sisters with The Matrix, David Fincher’s gut-punch adaptation of Fight Club, Sam Mendes’ now tainted American Beauty and Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling Magnolia lined up against George Lucas reviving the Star Wars franchise with The Phantom Menace, Pixar’s animated marvel Toy Story 2 and the blockbuster romance of Richard Curtis’ Notting Hill.

It was, looking back, a remarkable year to close out cinema’s formative century. The year 2000 was always going to struggle in its shadow and, truthfully, struggle it does. This is a year in which Mission Impossible 2 is the most profitable box office hit. A year not without its triumphs, among them Ridley Scott’s Gladiator or Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, but beyond them little that truly remains iconic at a distance in the manner we look back at 1999 and see around the corner The Sixth Sense or The Blair Witch Project or so on and so on. And if any film marks this transition, manages to serve as a pointer to how 2000 will struggle to carve out the same kind of historical legacy as the year before it, that film is surely Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane.

As, while by no means a poor piece of cinema, beyond the most ardent supporters of Denzel Washington, it struggles to truly define itself in any meaningful way.

Though Denzel remains a Hollywood titan, an actor who transcended the traditional limitations of black stars in Tinseltown and re-defined himself decade after decade, Norman Jewison is a name losing traction outside of those invested in cinema history.

Jewison had been circling what would become The Hurricane for the better part of a decade, having become entranced by the miscarriage of justice that was the life of Rubin ‘the Hurricane’ Carter, a middleweight champion boxer who in 1967 was wrongly convicted for a double murder in New Jersey and spent almost twenty years in prison before a successful appeal overturned the verdict. While incarcerated, Rubin penned a relatively successful memoir, ‘The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender To 45472’, which conveyed his youthful struggles growing up impoverished in New Jersey in the 1940’s, with spells in a juvenile detention centre and the US Army after managing to escape, before ending back up in prison as an adult. Rubin’s story, as developed by Jewison, defines the male black American story: suspected, persecuted and dehumanised.

You can understand why Jewison as a filmmaker would have been interested. The Hurricane ends up serving as the third part of an unofficial trilogy of films tackling race and injustice in America, beginning with the seminal 1967 drama In the Heat of the Night, which also co-starred Rod Steiger (who here has an extended, but rather crucial cameo in the final act) alongside a Denzel forerunner, Sidney Poitier, for which Jewison was nominated for an Academy Award. Carrying the theme through into the lesser known A Soldier’s Story in 1984, which focused on the Jim Crow south at the end of WW2, Jewison near enough bookends his entire career with films designed to illuminate his own, liberal politics; politics enough to drive him away from Hollywood and the studio system he had transcended—as he began making Doris Day movies—and to England, then Canada, bucking and avoiding the American New Wave of the 1970’s underway and transforming the system.

For that reason, you wish The Hurricane was more radical and less staid. It lacks the bite that In the Heat of the Night certainly did, perhaps given that film was made in a far more febrile atmosphere than The Hurricane, sitting at the tail end of what history will surely record as one of the quieter, open and progressive decades of the 20th century. The black community and race issue rages on today, but you wonder what someone like Spike Lee then or Steve McQueen today would have done with this material. One of Washington’s key, defining roles at the turn of the 90’s was of course for Lee, starring in Malcolm X as the signature American civil rights icon. Denzel parlays some of that fire into Rubin Carter, a man who is principally a boxer, a former soldier, an unjust felon, but for whom the civil rights movement ripples in the background. Yet there is never that profound, cathartic or devastating scene which pulls all of these themes and elements together.

It could be that Jewison focused so much on constructing the narrative behind the Hurricane’s unjust imprisonment that his script and direction miss the fire behind the events themselves. Buoyed by a jazzy and sonorous score by the ever-underrated Christopher Young, and with frequent uses of the Bob Dylan song ‘Hurricane’—which he wrote after visiting Carter in prison—Jewison’s direction captures mood and texture through various approaches; black and white recreations of the Hurricane’s middleweight victories, effective period setting of the 50’s and 60’s where the crime took place and we see Carter’s rise and fall – but the script, more so, seems more concerned with assembling the pieces of the story, not always in a linear fashion, in order to allow for a final act which switches from biopic character drama into a (fairly brief) courtroom drama, the outcome of which by that point is fairly obvious. This always needed to be, as Dylan puts it, “That’s the story of the Hurricane, but it won’t be over ’til they clear his name”, and justice over Dan Hedaya’s corrupt, malevolent Italian-American cop always needed to be the outcome.

There often just feels like The Hurricane is concealing an angrier, thrilling picture underneath the fairly traditional Hollywood narrative surface. Jewison’s film works to mythologise Carter, particularly in the eyes of formerly wayward black youth Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon, perhaps best known as the son of the President on 24), who finds inspiration in Carter’s memoir, befriends him in prison and serves ultimately as the catalyst for his successful appeal and eventual release. Jewison attempts to position him as almost a hybrid of Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, with moments of Carter ruminating on the origins of his surname. “Hurricane is the professional name that I acquired later on in life. Carter is the slave name that was given to my forefathers, who worked in the cotton fields of Alabama and Georgia. It was passed onto me”. Yet often Carter is portrayed as beaten, ground down by the system, as opposed to containing the electricity Washington has essayed in similar roles.

Had this story been told in the 60’s or 70’s, or even today, you sense The Hurricane’s politics would have been less inert. The tail end of the 1990’s lacked the momentum over the issue that the beginning of its decade contained, with Rodney King and the LA riots demanding headlines. The Hurricane operates more as a historical relic free of the natural racist undertones in what happened to Rubin Carter, given he was persecuted by a collection of white police officers who just wanted to vilify a black man who had turned himself into a sporting and racial icon. Jewison’s film is more about the psychology of the man than the movement, and it suffers as a result, because you can feel the weight of that being held back. The script works harder to tug the heartstrings, crafting Carter as a folk hero to the next generation of disaffected black youth, rather than looking back in anger.

The Hurricane also seems conscious of destiny. Rubin believes Lesra coming into his life is providence. One of Lesra’s Canadian foster family (a weird set up involving Liev Schreiber, Deborah Kara Unger & John Hannah) says at one point regarding the memoir “sometimes you don’t choose the book, the book chooses you”. It pays only lip service to these bigger metaphysical ideas, committed to detailing events and the journey of Carter himself first and foremost. This does give the film heart, and that’s to its credit, but The Hurricane could have had soul and passion, and landed with a sucker punch. Norman Jewison’s final major film, indeed the one he claims to be most proud of, ends up staggering through to its final round having impressed, but never having knocked you down.

Whether that final statement can describe 2000 as a year in film overall… time will tell…

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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