Hurricane Warnings However gripping, the film about Rubin (Hurricane) Carter's ordeal loses punch by fudging facts

January 17, 2000

Moviegoers leave The Hurricane Hurricane-ravaged--blinking back
tears, honking into handkerchiefs, comprehensively horrified (and
inevitably uplifted) by what they've just witnessed. "The story
is so unbelievable," critic Rex Reed wrote in The New York
Observer of the new biopic about boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter,
"you would doubt what you're seeing if you didn't know it was
absolutely true." The movie's "massive dossier of gripping
facts," Reed further hyperventilates, "leave you open-mouthed
because they're all true." Chief among those "facts": That Carter
was stalked since childhood by a racist cop; robbed of a decision
in a middleweight title fight by racist judges; framed for a
triple homicide by the racist cop; wrongly convicted by two
all-white juries; falsely imprisoned for 19 years; and finally
freed through the legal efforts of three Canadian social workers,
whom the racist cop, in his old age, attempted to murder. "His
life [was] destroyed," Reed concludes of Carter, "all because of
a corrupt policeman who pursued him from the age of 11 in the
same sadistic way Inspector Javert pursued Jean Valjean in Les
Miserables."

The considerable power of The Hurricane--and the credulity of
critics like Reed--owes to its billing as a "true story." "The
triumphant true story," says the Universal Studios Web site, "of
an innocent man's 20-year fight for justice." But Hollywood
cannot help itself, and most of the aforementioned "facts" are
not, in fact, true. The depraved stalker-cop is a fabrication,
the boxing match (by contemporary accounts) was won fairly by
middleweight Joey Giardello, and two blacks sat on the second
jury that convicted Carter. The film also conveniently fails to
mention that at the time of the triple homicide Carter had
already served four years in prison for three muggings.

The most significant fact of the fighter's life--the 19 years he
spent unjustly imprisoned for murder--remains. Thus, so does the
question: Why on earth would such a story need embellishing, when
such embroidery risks putting the larger truth in doubt?

Selwyn Raab won kudos for his coverage of the Carter case, and
last month he cataloged, for The New York Times, the film's
various variances from the truth. "The discrepancy between the
'true story' and what is seen on screen raises serious questions
about how Hollywood presents actual events," wrote Raab, "and the
liberties taken with the truth."

Jack Nicholson summarized his industry's attitude toward its
audience when he memorably said on film, "You want the truth? You
can't handle the truth." The truth is complicated, and movies are
not. There are, by and large, two kinds of people in The
Hurricane: the saintly and the monstrous, squaring off across a
moral Grand Canyon. So it is not enough that the stalker-cop is
depraved; he is a physically hideous attempted murderer who
menaces a young Carter, hissing at the child (to great audience
gasping), "You're just another nigger...." If this really
happened, it explains much. If it didn't, the filmmakers have
much explaining to do in a nation that already has a surplus of
racial mistrust.

Swallowed whole, I should say, The Hurricane can be an
exhilarating experience. Denzel Washington is ridiculously good
as Carter, and the film has zero Indiglo moments, when theaters
light up like Ursa Minor with digital-wristwatch displays. I
confess to spending much of the movie self-consciously slumped in
my seat, tears collecting in my clavicle, as all around me grown
men and women wept like Dick Vermeil. It was only afterward that
I learned the discrepancies between the "true story" and the
truth, and felt taken.

The truth, as Carter tragically discovered, will not always set
you free. But the truth ought to be incontestable in a true
story, and not treated to a 2 1/2-hour taffy pull. See The
Hurricane if you like, but make sure to heed The Hurricane
warnings.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)