Directed by Norman Jewison
The Hurricane is the story of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s 1966 arrest, false conviction and subsequent imprisonment on triple murder charges, and the decades long struggle to free him and the other man falsely convicted and sent up with Carter (John Artis). Carter grew up in a working-class family in Paterson, New Jersey. When he was eleven, he stabbed a white man who was making sexual advances to his friends and ended up in a reformatory. He escaped from the reformatory eight years later after being denied his release despite a good behavior record. He then joined the service and began boxing. His boxing instructor also gave Carter an interest in Islam, books, and intellectual learning. After his enlistment was up, Carter returned to Paterson, found work and lived a relatively quiet life until he was arrested on charges stemming from his escape from the reformatory. He was sent back to prison and began to train as a boxer in earnest. Upon his release, he began to box professionally and stunned the boxing world with his power and speed, quickly racking up a number of impressive victories.
He also began to acquire enemies because of his statements supporting the civil rights movement and black liberation movements. It was Carter’s belief from the beginning that these statements played a role in certain boxing decisions that went against him despite an overwhelming consensus that he had won these fights and were also primary motivations in his arrest and conviction on the murder charges.
The film is not just the story of Carter, however. It is also the story of the struggle that eventually freed him. It was a battle waged by a young African-American man schooled by and living with three Canadians. This was after the mass movement of the mid-1970s to free Hurricane perhaps best symbolized by Bob Dylan’s song “Hurricane” had faltered. The young man, named Lezra Martin, picked up Hurricane’s autobiography The Sixteenth Round at a used book sale and cannot put the book down. He begins correspondence with Carter and eventually convinces his guardians of Carter’s innocence. The four move to New Jersey and began a long investigation that eventually results in Carter’s freedom.
The film occasionally teeters toward the presentation of justice in these United States as ultimately fair, but the facts of Carter’s case make it impossible for Hollywood to pull off such an endeavor. Rubin’s eventual freedom after almost twenty years proves the exception, not the rule. This is where the much-criticized character of the corrupt, racist cop comes in. The film has been criticized for its fictionalizing of Carter’s story with some critics observing that the story is powerful enough without fictionalization. While this is certainly true, it is this viewer’s perception that the fictionalization plays an essential role in the movie’s politics. Specifically, the script has been criticized for its enhancement of the role this policeman played in Carter’s life even though he is not, as some have suggested, entirely fictional. This character is not meant to be perceived literally. His presence in the film is metaphorical. He represents the American system of justice and the role it plays in oppressing Black people in this country. When this cop tells Carter that Hurricane still owes him time after arresting him on the aforementioned escape charges, this policeman is the slave master telling all African-Americans that they still owe time.
Although there are a number of great performances here, this film is Denzel Washington’s. His portrayal of Hurricane Carter captures the pure emotion of the story without shortchanging the political and ethical aspects. In essence, Washington becomes Carter for the duration of the film. Carter’s story is an ugly tale of racism and oppression yet the movie is a work of beauty.
However, The Hurricane is more than the story of a man’s oppression. It is also the tale of how a human can resist that oppression–an oppression that is greater yet more petty than any individual. It is the story of the hope of youth and the naiveté from which that hope springs. Of course, as an individual who does what he can in the struggle to free those I believe to unjustly incarcerated, it was impossible not to draw parallels between the story of Hurricane and the tales of those currently wrongly imprisoned. This makes Hurricane’s story even more important. It is a story that needs to be told and re-told until all those who have been falsely imprisoned are released.
Born On the Fourth of July
Directed by Oliver Stone
I don’t usually like Tom Cruise and consider his acting to have as much depth as a two-inch wading pool. Nor am I a fan of Oliver Stone, whose obsession with violence and conspiracy tends to obscure whatever story he’s trying to tell. However, in the movie Born On the Fourth of July, both of these men do an extraordinary job in telling the story of what it means to be a soldier in Uncle Sam’s military and the value the war makers really place on a soldier’s life.
This movie is based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, a man from Long Island whose primary dream as a boy was to join the Marines and fight America’s enemies. To this end he joined the Marines right out of high school and soon found himself in the midst of the growing US war against the Vietnamese. Like the heroes he saw in the movies and on television, Kovic shouldered his automatic weapon and lead his platoon into the jungle to kill and be killed. Unlike those heroes, he ended up losing both his legs after being hit by shrapnel in an attack during his second tour of duty in Vietnam. From there he spent years in various VA hospitals. It was during his hospital stays that he discovered what those who had sent him to war really thought of him and his fellow soldiers. Rats ran around the rooms he and his fellow GIs slept in. Nurses ignored their appointed rounds, allowing the men to lay in their own waste and pain. Therapy was intermittent, and compassion was not a part of the recovery plan. Nonetheless, Kovic took it all in stride, still believing in his country and its military and playing the good soldier.
When doubts about his military activities began to affect him emotionally Kovic, like so many other veterans, drowned them out with drugs and alcohol. Naturally, this sent him into depressive episodes, which caused even more drug and alcohol abuse. Meanwhile, his younger brother and former girlfriend had begun protesting the war—attending and organizing rallies and meetings in Syracuse, NY. Kovic eventually overcame his mistrust and hatred of the antiwar movement and began to speak at rallies. His experiences in Vietnam provided him with knowledge few other antiwar activists had. Despite his continuing health problems, Kovic increased his antiwar activities and, like many others, felt the impact of police batons and right wing invective.
While watching this movie recently, I was reminded of another young man who also volunteered to serve in the US military and just as eagerly went to war. That young soldier was John Kerry. As most readers know, Kerry is running for president of the United States. Like Kovic, Kerry’s stint in the army changed his life. Like Kovic, Kerry became involved in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and worked to organize his fellow veterans to end the war. Unlike Kovic, Kerry drew the conclusion that Vietnam was an aberration in US policy and not its logical outcome. That’s why Mr. Kerry stands on the opposite pole from Mr. Kovic as regards Washington’s current bloody adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Candidate Kerry thinks that the US has a right to attack and invade other countries for its own ends. Mr. Kovic knows not only that wars will not resolve America’s problems, but also that its problems are fundamental to its economic system that favors the rich and the powerful. Perhaps he should converse with Mr. Kerry.
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