By: Susan Fitzgerald
Directed by Norman Jewison. Starring Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, John Hannah and Deborah Kara Unger.
Director Norman Jewison’s newest film The Hurricane tells the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a contender for the middleweight boxing championship, who spent nearly 20 years in prison for three murders he didn’t commit. The film, which stars Denzel Washington, is an excellent condemnation of the racism and injustice that pervades the criminal justice system in this country.
On a spring night in 1966, three people were gunned down in a Paterson, N.J. bar, and two Black men were seen fleeing the scene. Before long, Rubin Carter and an acquaintance, John Artis, were questioned by police.
The case against them was a sham from the start. When the two were first questioned, no witnesses could identify Carter and Artis as the murderers. The two even passed lie detector tests. At their trial — before an all-white jury — the prosecution could offer no motive for the killing.
The one piece of “evidence” they had was the “eyewitness” testimony of two burglars who claimed Carter and Artis were at the scene. Both men later recanted their stories, saying the cops pressured them to lie.
On perjured testimony and falsified evidence, Rubin Carter was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. His conviction led to a flood of celebrity support — including the Bob Dylan song “Hurricane” — and a 20-year battle to free an innocent man.
Although innocent of the murders, there was one “crime” that Carter was guilty of — he had been an outspoken opponent of racism and police brutality, and he supported the right of Blacks to use self-defense against racist cops. He was a vocal participant in the fight for civil rights and had worked alongside Martin Luther King. For this, he was targeted by racist cops.
The new film tells of Carter’s friendship with a young man from Brooklyn, Lesra Wilson, and the three Canadians who are raising Lesra. Inspired after reading Carter’s life story, Lesra convinces his friends of Carter’s innocence. The four move to N.J. and uncover the web of police lies, racism and deceit that led to Carter’s conviction.
The film is moving, both in its portrayal of the deep bond that grows between Lesra and Carter and in its depiction of the horrors and failures of the justice system. Several of the film’s characters and events are fictionalized for dramatic effect (for example, the network of police and prosecutors that worked together to frame Carter are depicted as one character). Nonetheless, The Hurricane is an amazing and inspiring telling of Rubin Carter’s 20-year struggle for freedom against almost insurmountable odds.
The Hurricane is particularly important for anti-death penalty activists to see. The sad reality is that many of those rotting on death row today are there merely because of the color of their skin. Since his release from prison in 1985, Rubin Carter has set up a foundation for the wrongly convicted and has been a tireless opponent of capital punishment. He is an inspiration for all who want to see an end to state-sanctioned murder.
Rubin Carter: “Add your voice”
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter spoke at a commencement breakfast at DePaul University on Martin Luther King’s birthday. After his speech, Marlene Martin and Alice Kim asked Rubin a few questions.
What did Martin Luther King’s message mean to you?
Dr. Martin Luther King was a very dear friend of mine. But Dr. King and I spoke about this continuously — that I couldn’t go down to the South and let those rednecks beat me up, I couldn’t do that because I believe in self-protection. I come from the Malcolm X school. I don’t come from the suffering people’s school, where I’ll suffer peacefully if you suffer peacefully with me.
If you’re not peaceful with me, I’m not going to be peaceful with you. I didn’t go to jail for anything that I did. I went to jail because of the way this country feels about the color of my skin.
You saw the movie with President Clinton. Did you talk to him about his role in expanding the use of the death penalty and restricting death row appeals? If you were convicted under the 1996 law he signed, you might still be in jail.
Yes, I wouldn’t have qualified for the writ of habeas corpus. The president and I engaged in serious conversation. But that was between the president and I.
Do you think we can get rid of the death penalty?
You hear people say that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” But that’s not completely true. Where there’s a you will and there’s an I will and there’s a we will — then there’s a way.
If you want to get rid of the death penalty, then join with those of us who also want to get rid of it — add your voice.