Hype and Hurricane

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When Hollywood takes a true story and, in retelling the tale, rewrites history, whose history is it? Is it the history of people whose lives have had a social impact? Or is it history packaged for a public which deserves a closer look at the truth but is delivered interpretations that can hike up box office sales? What responsibility does the moviemaker have to both truth and to finding an audience for a story’s potentially powerful message?

The controversy of possible distorted truths is nothing new for the screen, whether it’s Spike Lee’s retelling of Malcolm X’s life story or Oliver Stone’s depiction of JFK. Clearly history is open to interpretation and filmmakers often choose to take dramatic license, creating new characters and merging events, in the service of the "narrative."

Mike Wallace and the "60 Minutes" team got mighty heated when The Insider, a film about corporate influence on the media, was told from the viewpoint of Lowell Bergman, a former "60 Minutes" producer, and not from the perspective of Wallace and those in charge of the show. The film tells how, when CBS lawyers convinced the network not to run an interview with tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, for fear of law- suits, Bergman leaked the story to the New York Times, earning his place in history. Bergman’s odyssey was told glowingly in Vanity Fair, which led to the movie script and the, no doubt, amazing experience for Bergman of being depicted by Al Pacino. Mike Wallace, who comes off as less than ethical, is still fuming.

Nuanced and complex, The Insider won praise for steering clear of simple stereotypes. In contrast, The Hurricane deals with issues of racism and institutional corruption in an often sanitized way, robbing the viewer of a more challenging, and perhaps more powerful, cinematic experience.

The Hurricane is based on Rubin "Hurricane" Carter’s autobiography, The Sixteenth Round (Viking, 1974) and Lazarus and the Hurricane by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton (Viking, 1991). Although the film provides a fierce picture of Carter, played powerfully by Denzel Washington, it is far from accurate, according to Selwyn Raab, a veteran New York Times investigative reporter who covered the case and dug up the information that led to a new trial.

Raab writes that the movie "presents a false vision of the legal battles and personal struggles that led to Carter’s freedom and creates spurious heroes in fictionalized episodes that attribute his vindication to members of a Canadian commune who unearth long suppressed evidence."

A particularly overwrought element of The Hurricane is the presence of a malevolent, racist police detective, compared by reviewers to Inspector Javert in Les Miserables, who is said to have hounded Carter from age 11 until his conviction for triple homicide in 1966. Detective Della Pesca (partially based upon Lt. Vincent DeSimone and played convincingly by Dan Hedeya) is the lead detective in the case who pressures and then makes a deal with two petty burglars to falsely incriminate Carter and John Artis, who was with Carter when he was arrested.

Carter’s case has a personal interest for me. I was born in Paterson, N.J., where Carter’s case transpired, and grew up in Hawthorne, a much smaller town literally 100 yards across the polluted Passaic River from Paterson.

Hawthorne, then, was primarily a working-class Italian and Irish town, compared to the largely non-white population of Paterson. Hawthorne’s real estate brokers effectively conspired to keep out anyone of color. Hawthorne was also the home of Lt. DeSimone, who also happened to be the father of my high school girlfriend.

Up to a year before the crime, I spent the better part of two years hanging out in Vince DeSimone’s house. While not clear then, I realize now that DeSimone was a bad guy. But he was far from the only bad guy in those parts.

Making him the primary source of evil is a fundamental problem of the film. As Peter Rainier explains in New York Magazine: "The Hurricane simplifies Carter’s odyssey. Instead of fully dramatizing how racism was rampant in the criminal justice system that convicted him, it opts for a less sweeping indictment." Raab adds: "The actual story is more harrowing because it exposes an underlying frailty in a criminal-justice system that convicted Carter, not once but twice. The convictions were obtained not by a lone malevolent investigator but by a network of detectives, prosecutors and judges who countenanced the suppression and tainting of evidence and the injection of racial bias into the courtroom."

A second powerful fiction in the film is the depiction of a four-person household in Canada, which includes Lesra Martin, an African-American teen from Brooklyn, who establishes a relationship with Carter during the later years of his imprisonment. Carter says that the relationship with Lesra and the Canadians who supported him when he got out of jail was important.

However, the film goes much further, crediting these characters as daring amateur sleuths who uncover the evidence that eventually leads to Carter’s liberation. According to Raab: "All essential evidence concerning constitutional evidence, manipulated witnesses and prosecutorial misconduct was found by defense lawyers." One of the lawyers, Lewis Steele, wrote in the Nation: "In real life the three Canadians were nine," and "none of the Canadians’ investigative efforts played a role in the final outcome." Adds Wesley Moris in the San Francisco Examiner: "The film is a well meaning heart-tugger meant to laud the triumph of the spirit, but devolves into a big-budget, public service announcement for the good white people can do. "

The film also virtually ignored John Artis, the brave, innocent young man who had never been in trouble and who got caught up in Carter’s controversy, serving 15 years in jail. Artis refused to implicate Carter, despite heavy pressure from the police, and for that Carter called him "my hero" in the movie, but that was about it in terms of covering Artis. The film also, as Raab underscores, "sterilizes Carter’s history before his arrest for murder. He is characterized as a model citizen. ... What is omitted is that Carter served four years in prison as an adult for three muggings, crimes that later tarnished him as potentially violent and damaged his cause in the murder case."

Ironically, Carter refuses to criticize the film or the people in Canada with whom he eventually broke off relations. The woman he married after his release and later divorced – who led the Canadian group which has been described as a commune – is said to be radically different from the woman portrayed in the film. And even though Carter left the commune under complex circumstances and has not spoken to its leaders for more than two years, according to media reports, Carter told Raab he had little to say about the script and told NPR he has nothing to object to in the movie. His attitude seems to be that he is "alive and thankful."

In a final irony, The Hurricane was shown recently at the White House, where Carter was a guest of honor, praised by President Bill Clinton for his courage and persistence. Yet, as one of Carter’s lawyers, Leon Friedman, wrote in the New York Times, "No one mentioned the fact the in 1996, Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, passed by Congress, which makes it virtually impossible for another unjustly convicted prisoner to find justice in the way Carter did."

Carter’s lawyers got him out by filing a writ of habeas corpus, which enabled federal judges to decide whether a state trial met constitutional standards. Now that same legal maneuver is virtually impossible, which means that more Hurricane Carters will likely languish in jail.

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