There's a nice sequence in Norman Jewison's The Hurricane when Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (Denzel Washington), the black prizefighter wrongly convicted of murdering three white people in a bar, arrives at prison and refuses to surrender his street clothes. That earns him 90 days in solitary confinement, during which time Carter goes 15 rounds with the demons that have been haunting him his whole life--shadow-boxing his own soul. Jewison stages the scene so that there appear to be two Carters in there, Carter the fighter and Carter the lover. And the thing is, we want both of them to win. When Washington finally comes out of that cell and, before even asking what year it is, adjusts his tie, you can hear the wave of emotion washing over the audience. The Hurricane is yet another movie about the triumph of the human spirit, but there's a difference this time: The human spirit learns that it can be its own worst enemy. Not that Carter didn't have a formidable opponent in the New Jersey criminal justice system, which consciously and unconsciously conspired to put him away for good. Jewison and scriptwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon have boiled all that down to a single detective (Dan Hedaya) who hounds Carter like some Garden State Javert, and there are other ways that the movie reshapes history to suit Jewison's purposes--for example, the three Canadians who are given most of the credit for finally getting Carter out of prison. In an editorial published in The Nation recently, lawyer Lewis Steel argued that the Canadians' support was mostly psychological, not legal, and that blaming Carter's conviction on one rogue cop is "a cinematic crime." Jewison, who's Canadian, may have wanted to salute his compatriots' efforts in the only way that made dramatic sense, but you start to wonder exactly what he's up to.
I'd say the answer comes about three-fourths of the way through the movie when the Canadians are addressing a black teenager whom they've taken under their wing. "Hey, not all white people are racists," one of them tells the kid, who's been politicized by reading Carter's autobiography, The Sixteenth Round. "And not all black people are murderers," he tells her. There's the movie's theme in a nutshell, a theme that surely everyone in the audience agreed on before we got there. But Jewison pounds away at it like it was some kind of revelation, and the movie starts to seem rigged. Is the meaning of Rubin Carter's life that he got wrongfully thrown in prison or that he finally got let out? Both, obviously, but The Hurricane is at its best when showing us the way prison whittles away at one's soul. Washington's implosive performance suggests that for a man like Carter, there's no such thing as "life" behind bars.