We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

When Norman Jewison lost the battle over Malcolm X to Spike Lee, the desire to direct an epic of a great 20th-century African-American still burned within him. The only question, it seemed, was whose story to choose—but the question Jewison never asked himself was whether he was the man for the job. With The Hurricane, Jewison once again proves himself to be the kind of helpful liberal whose simplistic morality and narrative ineptitude do damage to the causes he espouses.

In the movie’s first few minutes, Jewison blasts through Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s story—his last great fight (shot beautifully but in textbook style with soundtrack noises that make the boxers sound like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots), his wrongful arrest for the murder of three in a bar, his incarceration, his writing of the autobiography The Sixteenth Round. Then the director goes back and tells us everything again in glowing period vignettes, as the modern story kicks off in the other direction, beginning with a young fan coming across Carter’s book.

As a young scamp, Carter was in trouble with the law semi-constantly, but the mental toughness that would serve him his entire life drew him out of the prison system early on; he emerged a fine, disciplined boxer and thrashed all comers with his crystalline fighting. With Denzel Washington playing him, Carter seems to harbor rivers of passion and intelligence that the script (by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon) does not tease out—he fights like a machine, and when the fight is over, dons an ostentatious coat and steps out for a night in the old neighborhood. Washington wears a smile of searing intelligence; his victory resonates inside him like a thunderstorm—a victory over his past, his sport, himself, and the white world outside.

But Jewison is either too scared or too foolish to let this magnificent actor play an indisputably complex character. The script seems to need Carter to be a perfect person so that the injustices committed against him resound doubly. But Carter was subject to astonishing, monumental, horrific injustices that stand on their own as examples of the corrosive poison that is American racism. When Carter is pulled over on the night of the murders, his downfall is a fait accompli. As smirky, dough-faced cops try to eke an accusation out of a dying victim, enter Inspector Javert in Columbo’s shabby coat—Detective Sgt. Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya) looms out of the dark, lit from below, flames practically rising from his footsteps. (The screening audience actually tittered.) It seems this burning little ball of racist rage has been after Carter since childhood and is itching to take down the jumped-up champion. At every turn of Carter’s misfortune, the detective is literally lurking in the shadows, resenting that black sonavabitch’s success.

Pesca has allies all over the justice system—every white man involved in Carter’s entrapment is as easy a target, all of them pig-eyed and sneering like Boss Hogg, such cartoonish approximations of good ol’ boys (the trials took place in New Jersey) that they seem less hateful than certifiably insane. There’s no doubt that Carter was put through the penal wringer, but the horror of institutionalized racism is a more formidable, amorphous, and frightening thing than the conspiracy of a few bad men from the past.

And that’s the most distressing aspect of The Hurricane—the flashbacks feel so distant and discrete that the story lets the viewer and contemporary society off the hook. That was then, the script claims, when we didn’t know any better; thank God that’s all over with. As for the half of Carter’s life set in modern times, the world is less fraught and more enlightened. And weirder: A promising American student named Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon) is taken in by three “Canadian educators” (are there more ambiguous words in the English language?) who live in one big house and never do anything, not even educate their ward. Liev Schreiber, Deborah Kara Unger, and John Hannah seem like a creepy New Age liberal cult, serving breakfast cereal to the black kid and not listening when he has something to say. Coming across The Sixteenth Round at a library book sale, Lesra becomes fascinated with Carter’s story, and the four of them set out to make him a cause celabre.

Since the Canadians are so ineffectual, the procedural part of the film lacks excitement—again, it shores up Jewison’s notion that Carter’s eventual release came about because the times caught up with his cause. The racist boxing judges, racist newspapermen, and racist cops are gone; their attitudes, presumably, are no longer relevant to contemporary experience. It’s much more interesting to watch Carter fortify his mental stronghold against debasement in prison, as he chooses not to settle for the crummy little pleasures afforded prisoners and rearranges his priorities and schedule to hold on to what individuality he has left. Washington has a way of tweaking every scene away from the predictable. He drops his voice as a way of exploding; he can light a ferocious fire behind his eyes at will. The same man who burned with intensity alone at study in his cell goes dead and slack with despair at the prospect of another appeal—”I’m 50 years old,” he says, voice cracking, and we can see that all the threads he’s wrapped around his soul to keep it intact are fragile indeed.

But even Washington’s prodigious powers of complexity can’t keep Jewison from flattening his character into a deracinated, desexualized figure of inherent nobility. It’s an odious vision of African-American manhood that suggests this particular specimen is therefore worthy of justice redressed, as if liberal ideals of justice should be as relativistic as racist ones. When a photographer in the prison calls Lesra “your son,” you remember that Carter has a kid somewhere, and what of the boxer’s alleged tomcatting activities, which are hinted at and dismissed? Is there something this story is not telling us, and if not, why?

The Hurricane tells a great story—and tells it so badly that it would have been better if the film had never been made. Jewison’s schematic morality is so loaded and unrealistic it might as well be happening on another planet, one that has nothing to do with ours. If inequality matters in this country, it must be recognized wherever and whenever it exists, not dismissed as a bad patch from long ago. If justice means anything, it should be available to all. And if race relations matter to you in the least, you should not make movies like The Hurricane. CP