For the real `Hurricane' story, read the book

January 19, 2000|By Gregory Kane

I'M SITTING in the theater, shifting uneasily in my seat. There's Denzel Washington, looking tres buff as former middleweight contender Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, about to dispatch an actor playing former welterweight champion Emile Griffith in one round.

Yes, Hurricane Carter is about to get the Hollywood treatment. I take in the first few frames of the Hurricane sending Griffith to the canvas and wonder how Tinseltown is going to blow this one.

Oh, it's a fine film, mind you. Washington is brilliant as Carter, the boxer who was charged along with John Artis in 1966 with killing three people at a bar in Paterson, N.J. The two were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment solely on the basis of that notoriously unreliable form of evidence known as eyewitness identification and testimony. The star prosecution witness -- a known lowlife and career criminal -- later recanted his testimony. That led to a second trial, where another jury convicted both men after the recanter recanted his recantation.

Carter's autobiography, "The Sixteenth Round," was published before the second trial. Part of it is the basis for the movie "The Hurricane," which opened nationwide last week. For those of you who have read the book, you would do well to skip Hollywood's version of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's story. For those of you who haven't read the book or seen the movie, dig up Carter's out-of-print gem if you can.

Little of the Hurricane Carter of "The Sixteenth Round" is in Norman Jewison's film. Oh, we get glimpses of him. In a bar scene, Carter tells a man "You're in my seat." The man answers "I don't see your name on it."

"That's because you're blind from the [beating] I'm about to put on you," the Hurricane answers. That's the Hurricane filled with equal portions of rage and wit -- a no-nonsense, truculent, vengeful man not to be trifled with -- who appears throughout "The Sixteenth Round." It's Carter's rage, wit and cogent criticism of the American criminal justice system -- and criminals -- that made "The Sixteenth Round" a wild, funny, poignant and angry read. Sadly, little of the book is in the movie.

"I was going to have a fist-to-face talk with that fool," Carter said of one boy in the book who had wrongly fingered him for a juvenile crime. In another section, Carter gave details of his experience with a youth gang. A member of a rival gang named Lurkie caught a boy in Carter's gang and branded a letter in the middle of his forehead.

"We felt Lurkie had gone just a bit too far," Carter wrote in one of several classic lines of understatement that rise to the level of genuine corkers. While serving his triple life term, Carter gave details of a prison riot. He didn't hesitate to blame inmates for starting it. Describing one inmate drunk on tomato wine who tried to incite other prisoners to rebellion, Carter wrote of him: "Reams of revolutionary toilet paper he wouldn't have [used himself], had he been sober, began to stream forth from his mouth."

But Carter also showed why his black nationalist philosophy didn't endear him to police and why black leaders circa 1966 didn't rush to his aid when he was being framed. Noting the riots in Harlem and Watts, respectively, after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, the Hurricane cynically said that with the way police attacked blacks in both communities, it was a good thing blacks hadn't asked for "civil wrongs."

The blacks should have defended themselves, Carter asserted, even against the police. No wonder civil rights leaders of the day didn't take up his cause. No wonder Jewison glossed over the angry Hurricane Carter of "The Sixteenth Round" for the almost saintly Rubin Carter of the movie. Rather than give audiences the nuts and bolts story of Carter's life as expressed in "The Sixteenth Round" -- a more powerful and compelling tale -- Jewison gives us the story of how three white Canadians and a black teen-ager helped Carter get free. The movie boils down to a "good white folks" tale without acknowledging that it was good white people -- the first jury that had some core values they should probably have left at the courthouse door -- who nailed Carter with a triple life term in the first place.

The film critics are pleased, but fans of "The Sixteenth Round" know that Jewison has reduced the Hurricane to little more than a light breeze.

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