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The 20-year Round

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*The Hurricane (R)
Universal Pictures

In May of 1967, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a rising professional boxing champion, was convicted of the murders of three white patrons of the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, N.J., and was sentenced to three life terms in prison. Carter proclaimed his innocence and refused to wear prison-issue uniforms, which he saw as symbols of guilt. For the next 20 years, Carter remained incarcerated, wrote an autobiography and tried twice, unsuccessfully, to have the charges overturned.

Bob Dylan wrote a song about Hurricane; movie stars took up his cause. Civil rights activists demonstrated on his behalf. But two decades passed before the evidence in Carter's trial was revisited and found to be racially based and "marred by concealment rather than disclosure" by federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin. Carter was released from prison, and in 1988, following a number of appeals by the state of New Jersey, the indictments against him were finally dismissed permanently. Hurricane Carter's innocence was proven, and his re-entry into the free world began with the help of a group of Canadians who had rallied behind his cause.

This is one of those American history lessons rarely, if ever, taught in high school. And it is one that needs to be heard -- both as a study in the history of racism in America and as an example of the reach of the long arms of justice.

Veteran filmmaker Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, And Justice for All) tells Rubin Hurricane Carter's story powerfully and with a steady gaze in The Hurricane. There are no groundbreaking camera tricks or imaginative twists in this biopic, and there don't need to be -- the story is a stunner on its own. Jewison just gets out of the way and lets it be told.

The most artful scenes in the film are the boxing scenes -- shot in gritty black and white, and shown as flashbacks. As Carter, Denzel Washington has taken off any previously soft flesh, replacing it with washboard abs and bulging biceps, and his depiction of the dynamic boxer is absolutely believable. Washington grows with the film -- as Carter is ripped from the world of notability and locked in seclusion, both his grief and his compassion expand, and Washington's performance perfectly captures that evolution. There's a lot of Oscar-nomination talk surrounding this performance, and it is well-deserved.

The script is based on two books: Carter's autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, and Lazarus and the Hurricane by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, two of the aforementioned Canadians. The Lazarus of their title refers to Lesra Martin, an American boy from Brooklyn who came to live with Chaiton, Swinton and Lisa Peters in the mid-'70s, and who came to know Hurricane Carter after reading his book and becoming a pen pal. A good deal of the film focuses on the relationship between Carter and Lesra, and though it is distracting at first, it ultimately works, illuminating Carter's transcendence of the conditions of his imprisonment, balanced against Lesra's own remarkable transformation from street kid to social activist. And young actor Vicellous Reon Shannon's depiction of Lesra is captivating.

Both the movie and its formidable star succeed best at dramatizing the hideous injustice of Carter's imprisonment, and the excruciatingly painful passage of time behind bars. It's impossible to walk away from the film without thinking of other inmates, wrongfully convicted, some undoubtedly sitting on death row now, and the current zero-tolerance mentality surrounding sentencing and imprisonment. For politicians and officials chomping at the bit, demanding more executions, The Hurricane should be mandatory viewing.

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