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Message of The Hurricane Can't Be Swept Away

by Caryl Sortwell |
May 1, 2000
(Fight Back! Stephanie Wiener)
Hurricane Carter addresses crowd at MLK Day breakfast, Depaul University, Chicago. (Fight Back! Stephanie Wiener)

It's Oscar season and Hollywood is lined up to honor the industry's "best." Unfortunately, as in previous years, controversial movies like The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington, are left out of the Best Picture category.

The Hurricane is based on the true-life story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a champion Black boxer who was imprisoned for almost twenty years for murders that he did not commit. Carter's story highlights what happens too often in US society today: many Black, Latino, and Native American men and women are wrongfully convicted, and have their lives taken from them by the criminal justice system. The Hurricane shines Hollywood's powerful spotlight on this reality, and you should see it.

Even before the film came out, an attack on the movie threatened to overshadow its message. Claiming the film changed the facts, critics focused on the details of the film, and not the big picture. Is anyone really that shocked that a big budget Hollywood movie made changes to create a two-hour story? Are all movies that are "based on" real events criticized that intensely? If The Hurricane was a documentary these criticisms would be more important.

Regardless of how many cops and lawyers conspired to frame Carter, and how many people worked to set him free, the fact remains that he was wrongfully imprisoned. Millions of moviegoers saw this picture (The Hurricane has brought in $50 million to date!) and witnessed the criminal justice system put on trial and declared guilty.

The real Rubin "Hurricane" Carter has now dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of the wrongfully convicted. In a recent speech given in Chicago, he spoke about how the idea of "going the distance" has changed for him during his lifetime. When he was a professional boxer, it meant lasting all fifteen rounds. When he was in prison, it meant surviving the despair of facing a lifetime in jail.

The message of this movie will go the distance, beyond the fighting over minor details. The United States now has more than five million of its citizens in the criminal justice system, and two million behind bars, the highest imprisonment rate of any industrialized nation in the world.

Hopefully, more movies in the future will expose other problems of our country. There should also be more films that celebrate movements and organizations, rather than special individuals, as well as films that condemn systems of oppression instead of single cops with a grudge. The Oscar voters haven't made that leap yet.

Denzel Washington's excellent performance as Hurricane Carter was honored with a nomination for Best Actor, but the reality of what happened to the man Washington portrayed is still too controversial to allow the movie itself to be acknowledged. President Clinton himself has said that he loves the movie, but in his last term signed laws that would have kept Carter in jail.

Denzel Washington didn't win the Oscar. If he had, maybe his acceptance speech could have ended with "Free Mumia, Justice for Amadou Diallo and all police brutality victims!" Nevertheless, The Hurricane has swept across America's conscience and stands out as this year's most-seen movie to stand up against injustice.

Caryl Sortwell is a member of Neighbors Against Police Brutality.

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