Washington's immense talent never more evident than in bio of imprisoned boxer 'Hurricane' Carter
It doesn't matter who else is nominated for 1999's Best Actor Oscar, the race will come down to Kevin Spacey's mid-life crisis and suburban ennui in "American Beauty" and the intensely defiant, deeply immersed performance Denzel Washington gives as a wrongly-imprisoned former boxer in "The Hurricane."
Washington burns with the festering, subterranean anger of miscarried justice in a role perfectly suited to his brand of charismatic integrity -- with a dollop of sullied toughness thrown into the mix.
He gives predictably profound, barnstorming monologues, he plays out an edge-of-sanity, internal dialogue with himself while "in the hole" for insubordination, he vehemently declares his innocence again and again -- but every word of it feels like god's truth, because Denzel Washington is that good.
This core-shaking biography of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, based on Carter's memoirs and another book about his struggle by a couple Canadians who worked to free him, is a lovingly-crafted look into the heart of a man who experienced first hand the dark side of the justice system -- convicted of a multiple murder he had nothing to do with and sentenced to three life terms.
A middleweight contender in the 1960s, Carter became a folk hero martyr in the '70s when Bob Dylan wrote a song about him, but it wasn't until 1985 that his conviction was overturned. This film tells of his determination to consider himself free even behind bars, cut with remembrances of his animal instincts learned as a kid on the street, his early run-ins with the law and his promise as a young fighter.
At the same time it tracks his bond with an inner-city teenager named Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), who discovers Carter's autobiography at a flea market and begins an eager, earnest campaign to free his newfound hero.
Lesra lives with a household of white-guilt do-gooders -- the aforementioned Canadians, played by John Hannah, Deborah Kara Unger and Liev Schreiber -- who eventually uproot their lives to dedicate themselves to appealing the boxer's conviction.
Directed by Norman Jewison -- a expert Civil Rights flag-waver (witness "In the Heat of the Night" and "A Soldier's Story") -- "The Hurricane" is, at times, obvious, manipulative and a bit rushed (just who these white folks are and how they support themselves and their causes is never adequately explained), and it portrays few shades of gray when it comes to character. Although tarnished on the surface, Carter is largely a stainless brand of steel, just as the prosecutor (Dan Hadaya) that dogs him his whole life is pure racist venom (and very likely fictionalized).
Jewison slides easily around in time, using Lesra's absorption in Carter's book as a jumping-off point for potent narration and engrossing backstory, which is slightly oversimplified and illustrated with stock (but accurate) racial injustice and newsreel footage. But the film is a skillful composition that leaves the nuances to its star.
Washington is a cocky and charming young Carter in his Army days; a powerful, intelligent force of nature during his bouts; an upwardly mobile black man in a time when that was a dangerous thing to be; and an austere prisoner-statesman as he fights his conviction from his prison cell for 16 years after being railroaded by the courts.
He's is astounding throughout, but his best scenes come just after Carter's incarceration as he establishes a pattern of defying his imprisonment, landing in solitary on day one for refusing to wear the penitentiary uniform, which he sees it as tantamount to admitting guilt.
While locked up in the dark, alone for 90 days, he skirts madness in an argument between his sanity and his fear and hatred. It's a brilliant piece of acting, even if it does scream "Oscar clip!"
But even when it's pandering, "The Hurricane," is more than just a prison drama or a legal drama, it's a deeply affecting drama of the human soul, thanks in no small part to Washington, whose immense talent has never been more evident.