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Saturday, 8 January, 2000, 08:01 GMT
Denzel's Hurricane stirs controversy
By BBC News Online Entertainment correspondent Tom Brook
The Hurricane, a film starring Denzel Washington as the wrongly imprisoned black American boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, has reopened the debate over how Hollywood portrays real-life stories.
Critics say the film is overly simplistic, ignores the true heroes and mythologises the former middleweight contender as a saint.
Carter was convicted of three murders following a shooting at a New Jersey bar in 1966 and spent 19 years in jail before being exonerated in federal court.
His battle to clear his name became a celebrated international cause in the 1970s and inspired the famous Bob Dylan ballad Hurricane.
At the film's premiere, Denzel Washington was eager to emphasise that this was not just Hollywood entertainment, but a story that dealt with the real people who fought for Carter's freedom.
"I'm happy for the people involved," said the movie star, asserting that The Hurricane tells the story of those individuals committed to liberating Carter. "That's what it's really about, about them, it's not even about us."
Stretching the truth
But on closer inspection, The Hurricane does seem to be more Hollywood confection than accurate rendering of the truth. In the film, which is directed by Norman Jewison, a group of Canadian activists are seen as Carter's saviours.
The Canadians, together with a young black New York youth they adopted called Lesra Martin, are portrayed as the committed sleuths who obtained the crucial evidence that finally brought Carter his freedom.
But in reality, Selwyn Raab - a journalist involved in the case - argues that the "essential evidence" that led to Carter's exoneration was found by the defence lawyers, not the Canadians.
Also, the big-screen version of reality suggests that Carter was the victim of a lone racist police investigator.
Some critics say the truth is far more troubling, because it was not just a single individual who kept Carter behind bars but a vast corrupt network that involved judges, prosecutors and the police.
Jewison, who directed In The Heat of The Night and A Soldier's Story, has a long history of tackling racially-themed stories, but The Hurricane is his first film to be based on a true story.
Jewison admits: "When you deal with a real story, you're dealing with real people's lives, so you'd better be careful. His detractors claim he has ignored the truth to create a more appealing image of Carter as an unblemished hero."
The film conveniently ignores any reference to Carter's four-year prison term for three muggings prior to being falsely charged with three murders.
It also fails to mention that the police found a shotgun and bullet in his car. But Jewison thinks what is important is that the film gets across a wider message of triumph over racial injustice.
Jewison told reporters: "The struggle goes on in this country for justice and I think this picture is full of hope and inspiration."
Hollywood does not have a strong track record when it comes to accurately depicting the lives of African-Americans and credit must go to Jewison for his eagerness to embrace racial themes.
But The Hurricane is slightly old-fashioned and reminiscent of earlier Hollywood attempts to deal with racism in that it smacks of a well-intentioned but guilt-ridden liberalism.
In Jewison's manufactured world of The Hurricane the white racist police investigator is the epitome of evil, but the two key black characters are pure, noble and good.
By ignoring the complexities and making Carter into an almost model citizen, The Hurricane reduces the boxer to a simplistic symbol of racial injustice that white America finds palatable.
By playing with the truth, the film runs the danger of perpetuating patronising myths about black Americans which are just as negative as some old-fashioned Hollywood stereotypes.
What saves The Hurricane is a powerful and nuanced performance from Denzel Washington - perhaps the best of his career. His presence gives what would have been a plodding exposition of Carter's story enormous grace and sophistication.
The role has already won him a Golden Globe nomination and his performance is also attracting the attention of legions of Academy members who will announce their list of Oscar contenders next month.
Prior to his arrest, Carter was one of the world's top middleweights.
In 1963 he knocked out world champion Emile Griffith in the first round of a non-title contest but lost a world title challenge the following year.
But his career was arguably on the slide at the time of his arrest - he lost three of his six fights in 1966.
Links to other Tom Brook stories are at the foot of the page.
Links to more Tom Brook stories
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