I ask myself whether there's anything Denzel Washington can't do. Surely if he put his mind to it he could play anybody from Karl Marx to Mozart to my aunt Birdie, and probably do better than they did. All of which is by way of acknowledging his genius as an actor, because now, in yet another amazing performance, this time as Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, he's given us the portrait of a human being who is strange and difficult and bitter and utterly disciplined to the point of paranoia, and yet unquenchably brimming with a great life force. And all in the face of, and staring down, a lifetime of bigotry.
Never mind that the film itself, called "The Hurricane," takes inexcusable license with the facts -- facts that actually could have enriched both the portrait of Carter and his story's implications for American society. Never mind that at times the script reads like a sixth-grade social studies text, of justice denied and heroic justice delivered by a boy. It is at least internally consistent, and it reminds us that racism is the enduring legacy of America; that we have all inherited our share of it, and nothing we do can rid us of it, as we see from the Confederate flag still flying over the South Carolina capitol.
The film begins with Hurricane as a boy, growing up in the blighted city of Paterson, New Jersey -- ironically of course also the home of William Carlos Williams, the physician-poet who brought thousands of children, black and white, into the world. Hurricane is defined by the power structure as simply a colored kid to be thrown away, and he is. At the age of eleven he's sent to a reform school, and after an escape at nineteen into the Marines, where he becomes European Armed Forces middleweight champion, he comes home, marries, and begins his professional boxing career. But then he's returned again to prison, to serve out the rest of his sentence.
When he's released, he still has his extraordinary talent, fighting for the championship against Joey Giardello but losing to a decision by judges who were bought for the fight. And then he's picked up as a suspect in a bar killing, is wrongly identified by a survivor, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. In the film all this is the work of a furiously bigoted detective (Dan Hedaya in a powerful performance), who lies, withholds evidence, and extorts perjured testimony, a man so hatefully written in the script that he ultimately passes belief and ends up as a hideous caricature.
But when the film takes us into prison with Hurricane we see how a great actor works. Everything Washington does from here on in the film is interior, is bottled up, is held in tightly for fear of exploding and shattering both himself and those around him. There is an extraordinary sequence in which he refuses to wear prison clothes when he arrives to serve his sentence. He's placed in the hole for ninety days, and with hardly more to work with than a light that goes on and off, he and director Norman Jewison and cinematographer Roger Deakins give us a terrifying portrait of a life both wasted and yet somehow still hopeful.
Many people outside work to free him (Bob Dylan's song "Hurricane" is played on the sound track), but for the purposes of the film his rescuers are three Canadians and Lasro, their (black and illiterate) young ward from Brooklyn (played by Vicellus Reon Shannon), who for the first book he reads chooses Hurricane's "The Sixteenth Round," his autobiography written while in prison.
Since we know the outcome of the case in advance, the obligation of the film is to make us privy to all that happens along the way. Here the film goes clunky and choppy, and Shannon particularly is in way over his head in a role that seems to ask him to play a holy child. But whenever things start to slip away into soap-opera land, Washington pulls them back again, takes the film into his own hands, and sets it right. It's a remarkable performance in a fascinating but needlessly flawed film.