Biopic as star vehicle: The Hurricane (Norman Jewison, 1999)


The Hurricane is your garden variety Oscar baiting biopic. Inspirational story, a showcase role for its lead actor, broad focus across the subject’s entire life, overly long running time… You know, the kind that may move you even if you don’t want it to. And if you’re a devoted cynic, or someone with in-depth knowledge of the subject, they’ll probably make you feel more than a bit cranky.

Some of those films can get away with bending the facts, and they can be forgiven for doing so to fit the complexity of a person’s life work within a few hours. The Hurricane, however, creates fictions and presents them in ways that make their falseness blatant, without actually making the film more watchable. It invents a racist cop, Detective Sargeant Della Pesca, who’s always been out to get Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Pesca is responsible for Carter’s first arrest, and frames him for those three murders. That the whole conspiracy can be pinned on one man’s grudge feels far too neat. The character becomes ridiculous when he appears later to menace Carter’s allies with vague threats. These threats never lead to anything and have clearly been included to give the story tension. It’s so crudely done that it draws more attention to this dubious character.

The worth of these films tend to rest on the lead actor’s capabilities. Denzel Washington is up to the task. When he shows Carter at his lowest moments, in solitary or telling his wife to divorce him, it’s easy to forget that he’s acting. The flashback at the end of the film to Carter in the ring leaves an instant impression about how far Washington has taken the character. He’s not necessarily a good enough reason to watch The Hurricane, but he is by far the best.


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