Denzel Washington does his most wounding slow burn in “The Hurricane.” As Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the middleweight boxer who served half of his adult life in prison after being railroaded for murder, Washington immerses himself, even more than he did in “Malcolm X,” in a stare of unforgiving outrage. It’s a look that starts as an accusation, delivered from on high, but that ultimately acquires so many unspoken currents of pride, loathing, disbelief, and bottled-up madness that it attains a truth more complex than the movie around it.
In one of the most harrowing sequences, Carter, arriving in prison, announces that he refuses to wear the standard uniform, since he’s not guilty and therefore no one’s prisoner. He is tossed into the hole, and he remains there, in his street clothes, for weeks, then months, gradually turning into a grimy ghost. When he emerges from his dungeon, he’s a physical wreck, but the first thing he does, speaking to an official, is straighten his necktie. That simple gesture of mockery and defiance might be too heroic to believe if Washington didn’t present it as an act of desperate sanity – another step in Carter’s mission to retain not just his status but his identity as an innocent man.
“The Hurricane” is the kind of old-fashioned liberal rabble-rouser that the director, Norman Jewison (“In the Heat of the Night,” “A Soldier’s Story”), practically has a patent on. Watching the movie, you know that you’re not getting the full, detailed story of Rubin Carter. The rougher edges of his personality have been sanded away (though his lean and hard machine-gun boxing style is vividly captured), and the script molds the intricate facts of his case into pure melodrama, drawn with the cleanest of moral lines. Carter is made victim by a vile, racist detective (Dan Hedaya) who dogs him from childhood, and he is rescued from prison by a team of tireless Canadian freedom fighters. It’s not that all of this is made up; it’s that there were more characters and more shades – to the victimization, and to the salvation as well.
Still, if “The Hurricane” has been conceived as virtually a generic portrait of injustice, as prosaic in its bluntness as the 1975 Bob Dylan protest song that drew national attention to Carter’s case, Washington’s great, stirring performance leads us into far more unruly terrain. He plays Carter as fiercely intelligent and articulate (which is accurate), with an intensity of awareness that only heightens his tragedy. The result, for all its flaws, is a haunting parable of survival – of how a black man wills himself through the nearly Kafkaesque ordeal of being presumed, in America, to be a criminal. This movie about the nightmare of incarceration makes you taste the meaning of freedom.