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Hurricane and Dr. King: Movie Review

As I happened to see Hurricane, the Norman Jewison film about the life of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter on Martin Luther King's birthday weekend, during a presidential election year, I can't resist looking at this film as a parable about the meaning of leadership. The movie centers around the relationship between the wrongly convicted boxer and the young man who becomes a catalyst in a chain of events leading to the fighter's release from prison. But this movie is neither about boxing, nor even the actual human being whom Bob Dylan brought to national prominence in his 1975 protest song, which frames it this way: "This is the story of the Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame." This movie functions at the level of parable or myth, and it touches more fundamental questions of the heart and soul. 

A number of critics have pointed to the liberties taken by screen writers Armyan Berstein and Dan Gordon in telling  the story. According to Selwyn Raab, the New York Times reporter who covered the original court case, several aspects of Carter's personal and legal history have been changed by the screen writers. Likewise, Lewis M. Steel, one of the lawyers who contributed decades of pro bono work, taking appeals all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, asserts that the movie is more a work of fiction than fact. In an article written for The Nation, he writes: 

While I sat in the theater watching the movie, I felt I was observing a cinematic crime. Along with Myron Beldock and Leon Friedman, I had spent years fighting to free Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the middleweight boxing contender, and his co-defendant, John Artis, after their conviction for a 1966 triple murder in Paterson, New Jersey.

Denzel Washington is splendid in his portrayal of Rubin's uncompromising resistance to the degradation of prison life, his indefatigable ability to publicize his cause and become a major force in his own defense. Beyond that, however, The Hurricane buries the truth in a false Hollywood concoction that blames Rubin's wrongful conviction on one rogue cop who is eventually undone by a group of outside heroes.

Steel's point is that in making the villain of the story a single, corrupt police officer rather than a system of justice which is itself corrupted by racism, the movie fails in coming to grips with the problem underlying the wrongful conviction in the first place, namely, the institutional racism that made such a miscarriage of justice possible then and now. Likewise, in exaggerating the role of the three Canadians and the teenager who play the heroes in the movie, the film makers obscure the actual reason for Carter's ultimate vindication in a court of law, namely, the lawyers' tireless struggle for justice in this case and reform of the criminal justice system itself. This is an ongoing struggle which contemporary reports of racial profiling by police in the state of New Jersey make clear.

Other critics have pointed out that in reaching for maximum emotional impact, the film makers have reduced a far more complicated sequence of events into the simple contours of a morality play. For example, Stephen Holden, of the New York Times writes:

Apart from the title character's internal battles, the world of The Hurricane is a place where there is little room for moral ambiguity. Everyone is either an angel or a monster. The angels are defined entirely by their love and support for Mr. Carter. The monsters are his enemies in Paterson, N.J., his home city where he and John Artis were said to have murdered three men. The worst of the enemies is Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), a corrupt, racist, Javert-like policeman whose sole aim in life seems to be the persecution, humiliation and destruction of a man he knows is innocent.
 

Interestingly enough, the same criticisms could be made of many of the sermons and editorials of this weekend in which Martin Luther King is remembered. The complexities of his personal life and even the flaws of his character are often overlooked in the interest in finding in his life a parable for our time. Clearly the Martin Luther King that most Americans remember is more legend that reality. This may in fact be a direct result of King's own role as a prophet and preacher who was addressing issues of conscience. He was more concerned about an appeal to the heart and the soul of the American people, than in arguing his case in a court of law where the smallest factual details can make the difference between victory and defeat. A powerful illustration of this is his "I've Been to the Mountaintop sermon of April 3, 1968, at the Masonic Temple in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone in support of the striking sanitation workers. The following day he was assassinated. His closing words in that sermon frame his own life in direct parallel to that of the biblical figure of Moses:

We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter to me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. ... I just want to do God's will.  And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. 

Are there profound differences of fact between the life of Moses and that of Martin Luther King? Of course there are. But King's appeal as a leader lay largely in his ability to strike the deeper chords of conscience and so to influence an entire nation. This is why he is remembered this weekend. It is also what every successful aspirant to the office of the presidency must remember. It's the "vision thing."  It's the ability to express in a few declarative sentences one's driving passions and purposes in life, and to do so in such a way that people can identify your own vision as their own. 

This is also the reason that Hurricane has such a powerful appeal. Both Rubin Carter the writer, and the film makers in this instance, understood the power of a narrative that is biblical in its proportions. In one of the most moving scenes in the movie, Carter and the young man, Lesra, whom Carter refers to as "Lazarus," share an intimate moment as they are awaiting the judge's decision in what is the last, best hope for Carter's release from the "death" of an endless prison term. Carter turns to "Lazarus" and quotes from the Bible, connecting passages from Genesis and the Gospels, in which the names Reuben and Lazarus appear. The theme that ties these names and passages together is the resurrection of the dead. And Carter says: "Hatred has put me in prison, but love will get me out."  Very few details from the biblical narratives of Genesis or the Gospels exactly match the narrative of Rubin Carter's release from prison, but somehow the connections work. Hence those who evaluate this film as a documentary will see only its flaws, but those who see it function as a parable of human liberation or even redemption will understand how well this movie succeeds. Contemporary leaders who can make similar connections to great themes of good versus evil, life versus death will also succeed, even though they may not always get themselves elected. 

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.