The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 20, 2000
Wide Angle

Of matters black & white
By Ervell E. Menezes

WHAT it is to be Black in a White world and how things are fabricated in order to get a conviction is what Hurricane is all about. We know that the deep south in the USA is known for its racism but this story is set in New Jersey, a suburb of New York, and shows how vendetta plays a major role in the misfortunes of middle-weight boxing hero Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter (Denzel Washington).

Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in Erin BrockovichBased on Carter’s autobiography The Sixteenth Round, written in prison, it gives a blow by blow account of the man who forms a bond with another Black, also oppressed, and how with the help of some Canadian activists the case is reopened and justice finally prevails. It is a true story but some liberties have been taken for dramatic effect.

"Hate put me in prison, love is gonna bust me out," says ‘Hurricane’ Cartermidway through the film. When he was 11 years old, a White man’s vendetta got him into jail. To be convicted wrongly twice in one life time is no joke. It is enough to lose one’s faith in human nature. In his first stint in jail he turned his body " into a weapon" and became a boxer. In his second stint he discovered the power of the pen and wrote his book. "Writing as a weapon is more powerful than the fists," he says. But it is only after Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a Black American living in Canada, reads his novel that he marshals support for Carter’s seemingly lost cause.

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Convinced of his innocence, Lesra enlists the support of his social activists guardians Terry Swinton (John Hannah), Lisa Peters (Deborah Kara Unger) and Sam Chaiton (Liev Schreiber), all Whites, to mount a consorted campaign to get Carter freed. Director Norman Jewison, aided by a comprehensive screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Don Gordon, puts together as absorbing and pulsating a docu-drama as one can hope for . With such a diverse body of work that includes In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar, Jewison once again establishes his versatility and with the judicious use of the flashback technique is able to keep the story going at a staccato pace for a full 150 minutes. Shades of Costa-Gavras.

Not since the 1960s when William Wyler made The Liberation of L. B. Jones (where Lee J. Cobb is the corrupt, racist lawyer), have I seen a film in which the law is so blatantly White. It also strikes a blow for literacy and there is an impassioned speech delivered by Denzel Washington in a performance that could well have won him a Best Actor Oscar had it not been for Kevin Spacey in American Beauty.

Denzel Washington & director Norman Jewison in HurricaneThough the supporting cast is made up of comparatively unknown actors like John Hannah, Vicellous Reon Shannon and Deborah Kara Unger, they do a fairly competent job. Jewison’s star of In the Heat of the Night Rod Steiger as the clean shaven judge can scarcely be recognised and suffers the fate of most stars of yesteryear having to pick up the crumbs. As a film Hurricane will go down as one of the classics in colour bar genre.

Another crusading film is Erin Brockovich based on a true story about the largest pay off ever made by a polluting company in direct-action lawsuit in the USA. The fact that the moving force behind the investigation is an unschooled, twice-divorced mother of three children, Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts), gives it a feminist touch and also marks a sort of return of ‘Pretty Women’Julia Roberts.

" I’m smart, hard -working and I’ll do anything and I’m not leaving without a job," she tells her car-accident attorney Ed Masry (Albert Finney) and it is through him that she comes across the case of the toxic chromium leak by the Pacific Gas & Electric company. Slowly but surely she converts her conservative boss (because she convinced him to hire her) into her line of thinking and also makes him pick up some of her bs and fs-splattered language.

The Movie Mirrors Shades of The China Syndrome which anticipated the three-Mile Island leak in the USA in the 1970s. Director Steven Soderberg comes to grips with the subject without much delay but the exhibitionistic Erin revealing more cleavage than required, dilutes the subject to an extent. Soderberg also falls prey to the usual Hollywood formula. But this can be overlooked in the light of the gravity of the subject and all things considered, it takes a good Swipe at the establishment and how big companies pull the wool over the eyes of innocent citizens by not only hiding the truth from them but by telling them it is "good for you."

This feature was published on July 23, 2000