Mark Jacobson, currently a contributing editor at New York Magazine, is the author of two novels: Gojiro and Everyone and No One.
The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison. Universal Studios, 1999.
Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter, by James S. Hirsch. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Bob Dylan's epic story-song of boxer/accused murderer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's life and times announces, "Here comes the story of the Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame, for something that he never done...." From there, neatly assuming investigative reporter-cum-polemicist mode, Dylan runs through the now-familiar details of the Carter case. How, on a night in the winter of 1966, "pistol shots ring out in the barroom night," leaving three people lying dead in Paterson, New Jersey's, Lafayette Tavern. And how Carter and his friend John Artis were fingered by petty crooks Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley and charged with the murders by a severely compromised Jersey court. And how "the all-white jury agreed."
In a century of explosive trials based on race, from the Scottsboro Boys on up through O. J. Simpson and the recent Amadou Diallo verdict, the matter of Rubin Carter continues to occupy a significant and still hotly contested position. "The story of the Hurricane" is, after all, a fabulous one--a saga of race hate and fear, legislative corruption, and, in the end, the overweening effects of celebrity. Once a hardnosed street punk, Rubin Carter's path has taken him from a bad-ass, shaved-head prizefighter through a nineteen-year incarceration during which he became a 1970s cause celebre in the manner of Huey Newton and Mumia Abu-Jamal to the ultimate redemption of his release in 1986. Now widely seen as an indomitable saint/icon, the sixty-two-year-old Carter recently addressed the United Nations General Assembly, where his story of personal will in the face of brutal institutional falsehood was greeted with much applause from the global body.
But still people argue over which "story of the Hurricane" to believe. The current release of the Hollywood movie The Hurricane and, to a lesser degree, author James S. Hirsch's far more nuanced authorized biography, Hurricane, has elicited a mini-firestorm of criticism. Much of this vitriol has come from noted liberal writers, people like Selwyn Raab and Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times and Jack Newfield of the New York Post, many of whom either championed or actively worked for the fighter's cause throughout the years.
According to these critics, the film version of the story, which was nominated for several Academy Awards and proved to be something of a hit, is riddled with distortions of fact and outright lies. Serious questions have been raised about the sanitized version of Carter's early, often brutal, criminal career, as well as the portrayal of the Passaic County judicial process. Playing fast and simple with well-documented events, critics charge, the film invents a single vindictive, patently racist cop who dogs Carter almost from the cradle, thereby compromising a more difficult to dramatize indictment of the entire New Jersey legal system. Also lambasted is the role of "the Canadians," a mysterious group of whites from Toronto who, according to the movie, take the lead role in securing Carter's eventual release. According to fault-finders, the emphasis on the Canadian contribution--including the pivotal role of a young black man adopted by the group who initially reaches out to the imprisoned Carter--unfairly slights the largely unpaid efforts of a bevy of New York-based lawyers, notably Myron Beldock and Lewis Steel, who worked long and hard to free the prizefighter.
The degree of outcry, bordering on outrage, greeting the film is somewhat surprising considering that, at least on the surface, The Hurricane appears to be an old-fashioned, standard-issue workup of Hollywood faux-social realism not unlike liberal tomes once directed by well-meaning types like Stanley Kramer. …