This is the story of a world-famous boxer unjustly imprisoned for more than two decades for felony murders he did not commit. His conviction, upheld in a second trial, before he is finally released by a federal court, is practically an operational definition of the term "railroaded." Rubin "Hurricane" Carter would still be in Trenton State Prison, a hell hole if there ever was one, if it hadn't been for the altruistic efforts of three adults and one adolescent member of a Canadian commune, who became amateur sleuths by accident.
The film isn't particularly complicated. In fact, it's dumbed down to a point beyond which a lack of comprehension would be attributed to pathology. Almost all the frissons that might have made this more than a simple tale of moral strength and fortitude have been left out or shaped to fit a familiar mold. Dan Hedaya, for instance, is Paterson, New Jersey's Detective Della Pesci, the personification of racist-motivated darkness. The only reason he's in the movie is to snarl, threaten, make foul racist remarks, chivvy Carter, and see to it that he spends as much time in the slams as possible. Now, imagine that the movie gives him edge and adds other dimensions. Imagine, instead of Detective Della Pesci, Inspector Javert of "Les Miserables," another police officer who simply cannot give up his persecution and yet is recognizably human rather than another familiar stereotype. It would have been so EASY to give the heavy a family and a dog or at least a social context -- rising black crime in the cities of the 1960s and the panic associated with it. Yet the writers and the director throw away any chance to turn the film into something other than a condemnation of racism and the white people infected by it. As a kid, Hurricane stabs a middle-aged white guy only to save his chum from an oily child molester. Does anyone believe this? Ho hum.
Not to diminish the heinous effects of racism (or, more generally, prejudice) in our justice system. It's an imperfect machine, and Carter suffered abominably for every fourteen-year-old black kid who ever decorated a brick wall with graffiti from a can of spray paint. During one of his trials, the prosecution refers to his having been convicted by "a jury of his peers" and Jewison gives us a long shot of the all-white jury, in case we might otherwise miss the point. We can't help being relieved when Carter is ultimately released, and can't help thinking somewhere in the back of our minds about those twenty years of imprisonment.
Nobody really has much to do as far as acting is concerned. Denzel Washington is pretty good at projecting pent-up anger and defiance. And the writers have his character develop too. At first he concentrates on turning his body into an instrument of power. But after reading some inspirational books he develops his mind as well, and in practical ways. He resists being swept up in the prison system by rejecting what sociologists have called "the small reward system" of total institutions. If favors are returned by cigarettes, Carter doesn't smoke. If submission leads to protection, Carter can do without the protection. His career in the Army, however, was not quite the smooth ride the movie gives us, but let's not dabble in too many discrepancies between art and life.
The other characters are rather blank. Life in the Canadian commune was evidently not lastingly satisfying. (Carter and Deborah Kara Unger's blond altruist were married, then divorced.) But we don't really get to know much about them. They -- and Carter's legal defense team -- are played mostly as bland do-gooders who would have failed if not pushed to the wall by the power of Carter's will.
There's a good movie around this story, lurking someplace, unorganized, entropic, waiting for someone to write it and put it on the screen. It's a parable of good and evil. Not of good people and evil people, but of people who are each, within themselves, good and evil, just like all the rest of us. But this isn't that movie.