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Hurricane Warnings
Steve Rushin
January 17, 2000
However gripping, The film about Rubin (Hurricane) Carter's ordeal loses punch by fudging facts
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January 17, 2000

Hurricane Warnings

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

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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 Mis�rables?

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 selfconsciously 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�-hour taffy pull. See The Hurricane if you like, but make sure to heed The Hurricane warnings.

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