Brains and Brawn
I’ve always felt that while Denzel Washington had certainly mastered the craft of acting, he hadn’t quite sussed the art. Washington has always been just a tad too restrained for my taste, never letting himself totally slip into the skin of the people he portrays. He has typically played very cerebral characters, and maybe that is part of the problem: the braininess of his characters made it easy to think like them but not act like them.
And sure enough, with The Hurricane, Washington does finally join the rank of actors capable of delivering a performance that packs an emotional wallop. All it took was a role that is at least as physical as it is cerebral.
Based on not one but two books about a true-life case of the utter failure of the American criminal justice system, The Hurricane tells the tale of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Denzel Washington: The Bone Collector, Fallen). Unfairly given up as a lost cause while still a child, Rubin — whose youthful “crimes” in the rough-and-tumble of postwar urban New Jersey had more to do with racism than any real trouble he caused — decides to “turn [his] body into a weapon.” In a world in which he had little control over his own life, his body is the one thing entirely within his power.
After growing up mostly in juvenile homes, Rubin escapes — literally — to the army, in which he becomes a champion boxer. We meet him just as he is returning home from the service, and here’s the first hint that Washington’s physicality will play an important part of what makes The Hurricane so successful: The 45-year-old actor has no trouble passing for a young man in his 20s (in fact, by the end of the film, when Rubin is just a bit older than he actor, Washington is grayed and grizzled up with makeup… to make him look his own age). The early scenes of Rubin’s fights in the ring show off exactly how much Washington physically immerses himself in the character of Rubin: Washington, one of the handsomest men onscreen today, has nevertheless never been so — oh, my — buff.
Quiet dignity has been Washington’s calling card as an actor, and that’s not missing here. Rubin, railroaded — along with an acquaintance, John Artis (Garland Whitt) — for the barroom murders of several people, maintains his innocence as he arrives at the prison that will be his home for the next 15 years. Refusing to wear prison garb, which he calls “the uniform of a guilty man,” he is punished with 90 days in “the hole,” a dark cave of a cell. Although the nearly inhumane conditions wear down both his body and his mind, Rubin emerges with his dignity intact — thanks to some assistance from a sympathetic guard (Clancy Brown). But he has metamorphosed as well, into a man so determined not to let his soul be caged that he ends up caging it himself. Did Washington, as an actor, need to suffer with a character through a physical humiliation and breakdown (and the many other humiliations of prison life depicted here) before he became one with the character? Something happened here, with this film, to make Washington’s Rubin leap off the screen in a way that his other characters haven’t.
Rubin finds his soul being freed — much to his surprise — years into his sentence, by teenaged Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon). As befits a movie based on two books, it is The 16th Round, the autobiography Rubin wrote in prison, that inspires Lesra to send a letter to Rubin. A young, mostly uneducated black man who might have been heading for the kind of life that Rubin got — though Lesra might have deserved it — Lesra instead has seen his life transformed by reading and books, and he sees his own life in Rubin’s. Lesra and the idealistic Canadians who are tutoring him — Lisa (Deborah Unger: Payback, The Game), Sam (Liev Schreiber: sphere), and Terry (John Hannah: The Mummy, Sliding Doors) — make Rubin their cause, reinvestigating his case and uncovering the blackmail and prejudice that wrongly put Rubin in prison in the first place.
But Rubin is wary of them at first. He has seen many do-gooders come and go, giving up eventually on his case when the task seems too insurmountable, and for the first time, Washington’s emotional restraint works for me. Rubin has locked away his humanity — he sees it as the only way to survive in prison — and his reluctance to let anyone get too close is all the more poignant because we’ve seen all he has gone through in his efforts to maintain his sanity, his composure, and his self-respect. He can’t lose that struggle by opening up to strangers, no matter how friendly, too soon.
“It’s very important to transcend the places that hold us” — this is one of the gleanings of his hard-won wisdom Rubin shares with Lesra. And that advice applies to the art of acting as well: actors need to transcend the artifice of their characters and make them breathe for audiences. Denzel Washington has done that here, brilliantly.