Denzel Washington Films

THE HURRICANE (Universal Pictures and Beacon Pictures)

(January 2000):  Denzel Washington has surprisingly been known to say that he doesn’t receive that many offers to make movies.  Maybe an additional question arising from this film is how long it’s going to take before producers cast him as not just an African-American actor but as simply an immensely talented thespian who is a favorite with movie audiences. 

When boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was wrongfully accused of murder in 1967 and sentenced to three life terms in prison, he already had a history worthy of a Greek tragedy.  Director Norman Jewison’s biographical movie has a correspondingly complex, non-linear storyline.  But the film’s final impact is like a sucker punch delivered straight to the solar plexus.

The movie, which jumps back and forth between almost 40 years of Rubin Carter’s life, periodically diverges to a second plot involving four people who eventually interact with the imprisoned boxer.  The screenplay was adapted from two books:  Carter’s 1974 autobiography, The 16th Round, and the 1991 biography, Lazarus and the Hurricane, by Canadian activists Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton.  “The Hurricane” is a movie within a movie within a movie — challenging, but absolutely riveting.  A man in the theater audience was proof of this, yelling out “No!” during one crucial scene.

Denzel Washington stars as the adult Rubin Carter.  Months were spent in training for the role and he emerged lean and mean, a fightin’ machine throwin’ 80-90 punches in a minute-and-a-half.  Denzel, as always, is incomparably charismatic.  As Carter, he’s electrifying — a Robert Mitchum-type burning with controlled anger.

As the film unfolds, there’s a brief glimpse into Carter’s troubled childhood.  At 11-years-of-age he’s already a thief and all-around mischief-maker.  He stabs a would-be pedophile and is sentenced for an interminably long period to a brutal institution.  He escapes eight years later and enlists in the U.S. Army.  Returning home in his crisp, green uniform, he’s full of confidence and feels that he “can do anything.”  Well, not yet.  The same corrupt detective, Vincent Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), who was instrumental in institutionalizing him puts him in prison.  “You still owe me time,” he says.

It’s 1961.  Carter, who had his own regimen while in prison, is released back into society.  His body has been honed into a “weapon”; he’s a “warrior-scholar.”  He enters the boxing circuit and becomes a powerful, popular contender.  But — like an albatross that’s never far away — Detective Pesca re-enters his life in 1966 and induces two criminals to falsely accuse Carter and a fan of a triple murder.

The State of New Jersey sentences Rubin Carter and John Artis to life imprisonment in 1967.  In 1974, still incarcerated, Rubin publishes his no-holds-barred autobiography.

In what is almost a parallel universe, Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), an African-American teenager living in Canada, buys a used copy of Carter’s autobiography and becomes convinced of his innocence.  He ignites an altruistic flame in the three Canadians he lives with and — even though Carter has been reconvicted in a second trial — they move to the U.S. to gather suppressed evidence.  At the risk of endangering their lives, they continue on until Carter’s case is brought before a federal judge in 1985.

“The Hurricane” is a gritty but compelling film, a disturbing look at a system gone awry.  Director Norman Jewison, whose films have received 45 Academy Award nominations, skillfully uses musical segues after the more brutal scenes, allowing the viewing audience to breathe, as it were.

Denzel Washington’s chilling portrayal of Rubin Carter’s 90 days in the “hole” is, by itself, an award-worthy performance:  Carter’s anger mounts until his psyche splits and he battles against a ravening doppelgänger.  Carter’s marriage, though, is given only cursory treatment.  Denzel’s few scenes with Debbi Morgan, who plays his wife, Mae Thelma, are nonetheless dynamic.  They sizzle to the point of combustion.  Detective Pesca is a stereotypical, snarling bad guy, about as one-dimensional as they come.

The complicated non-linear storyline, which leaps back and forth between the U.S. and Canada, prevents a close examination of most of the characters.  It also hinders the inclusion of important facts which make the 1967 conviction even more startling:  1) the police who declared in June 1966 that Carter and Artis “were never suspects” in the triple murder; 2) the June 1966 grand jury exoneration of the two men; and 3) the three grand juries later that year that chose not to indict them.  Inevitably, artistic license was used in the creation of the film, but Rubin Carter — now 62 and living in Canada — is ostensibly pleased with how he’s portrayed.

The film raises more questions than it answers, particularly regarding the protected pedophile and Lesra Martin’s education.  Carter is portrayed as a young, sacrificial lamb ostracized from society to shield others’ illegal activities.  Did this impact his boxing career?  Regarding Lesra Martin’s education, he was “third in his class” while living with his alcoholic parents in Brooklyn yet he couldn’t read.  He moved to Canada as a teenager and is now a lawyer practicing in British Columbia.

(Rated R:  language; graphic shooting and crime scene; male nudity in non-sexual setting)

(Written by C.E. Chambers and published by The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition January 25, 2000.)

REMEMBER THE TITANS (Walt Disney Pictures)

 Rarely does a movie audience get treated to something entertaining, inspirational and educational.  The screenplay, written by Gregory Allen Howard, is based on a true story about a Southern town that worshipped at the throne of high school football – and, after a tumultuous beginning, rose to the challenge of forced integration.  Some will probably dismiss this film as formulaic and feel-good because of the rah-rah ending.  The people of Alexandria, Virginia, however, remember this volatile time…and still honor the people who made a difference.

In 1971, Alexandria was ready to come apart at the seams.  The federal government had mandated the busing of high school students into racially polarized communities.  Two men with axes to grind were thrown together – and escalated the tensions between the students.

Denzel Washington (“The Hurricane”) stars as Herman Boone, a football coach who loses out on a promotion in South Carolina to a “dumb white” – and unwittingly demotes a white man, Bill Yoast (Will Patton, “Gone in 60 /seconds”), by accepting the position of head coach of the T.C. Williams High Titans in Alexandria, Virginia.  The residents of Alexandria are shocked by their beloved coach’s demotion – including his cute-as-a-button but very opinionated eight-year-old daughter, Sheryl (Hayden Panettiere).

Yoast, who has years of seniority, considers resigning but changes his mind when the white students’ tempers flare and they threaten to boycott the team.  To keep peace in the town, he accepts the position of assistant coach to Herman Boone.

“I’m not Jesus, Martin Luther King, or the Easter Bunny,” the no-nonsense Boone tells the hostile team.  “This is a dictatorship, not a democracy,” he goes on to say, and sends them to a two-week football camp.  Before the bus leaves, he instructs the players to sit next to a person of a different color.  Then he shares that they’ve just picked their roommate for the rest of the trip.

During an era of freely expressed racial slurs and Olympic competitors raising fits in black power salutes, students suddenly thrown together are given a choice: they can “defend other people’s fears” – or they can learn to respect each other.

When Herman Boone and Bill Yoast, albeit with totally different management styles, learn to work together on the field, the team captain, Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst),and the lead defensive end, Julius “Big Ju” Campbell (Wood Harris), become not just “two of the best players” – they become like “brothers.”  They stand against racial taunts, corrupt referees, and the pulverizing plays of the taunting, opposing teams.

And go on to become state champions: The second best high school in the country.”

This film could have easily become one more misguided production by good people who feel an obligation to society to warn of the dangers of racism while simultaneously stereotyping both whites and blacks.  Directed by Boaz Yakin and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Chad Oman, the cruel realism of racial taunts and segregation is included – but so is the integrity of the real-life characters.  (Some of the minor characters are amalgamations of several people, but Ronnie Bass, the surfer from California who enrolls in T.C. Williams High School because it’s integrated – “If they can fight a war together, they can play together,” says his military father – is based on a real character.  Bertier’s girlfriend, Emma, however, is a fictional personality.

It’s an Oscar-worthy film in more ways than one but the talented actors who perform with their hearts in their mouths (Washington, Patton, Harris, Hurst) will resonate emotionally with viewers long after the lights have turned back on in the theater.

(Rated PG: minor profanity; racial slurs and tense confrontations; football team praying before a game).

(Written by C.E. Chambers and published by The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition September 6, 2000.)

THE BONE COLLECTOR (Universal Pictures)

If there’s a dearth of decent actors, you wouldn’t know it by watching Denzel Washington’s performances.  He’s one of the few modern thespians who can hold a candle to the likes of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.  In fact, if Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, he would run –not walk – to cast Denzel as the lead in one of his thrillers.

The latest thriller, “The Bone Collector,” was directed by Phillip Noyce (“Patriot Games,” “Clear and Present Danger”).  It’s a better than average film that will go to the top because of Denzel’s superb performance as bedridden Detective Lincoln Rhyme.  He was once the country’s leading criminologists, a New York-based forensics specialist who was seriously injured in the line of duty.  Now he’s a paraplegic at the mercy of potentially mind-damaging seizures – and ready to “self-terminate.”  Queen Latifah (“Living Out Loud”) stars as his no-nonsense live-in nurse, Thelma.  Angelina Jolie (“Playing By Heart”) is Amelia Donaghy, a policewoman and former model.  Both Donaghy’s and Rhyme’s expertise are suddenly needed to ferret out what may be a serial murderer masquerading as a cab driver.  The policewoman, who’s just received a long-awaited transfer to the Youth Division, stubbornly refuses the assignment.  But she unwittingly asked for it when she unflinchingly stopped that Amtrak train before it could run over potential evidence.

Denzel Washington, as the man who’s basically only operative “from the shoulders up,” doesn’t indulge in self-pitying histrionics.  Instead, his performance lends a passionate dignity and intelligence to the real-life world of confined patients. Angelina Jolie successfully infuses her role with the depth required of a skillful policewoman haunted by unreconciled memories.  Unlike cinema’s usually silly portrayal of female cops, she doesn’t hide behind heavy makeup or wear designer clothes (at least, not until the end).  Also, unlike Ashley Judd in “Double Jeopardy,” she doesn’t break character when she fires a gun.  As for Queen Latifah, viewers will be disappointed that she doesn’t have a larger part.  Her screen presence is nonetheless substantial; a welcome change to Hollywood’s penchant for airheads.

The original music was written y Craig Armstrong, a sort of wistful Rakhmaninoff-ish sound that corresponds perfectly with policewoman Donaghy’s solitary explorations into the bowels of old New York.  And, yes, there are bloody crime scenes with knives and rats and black-and-white photographs of bodies in early stages of decomposition.  The effect is muted by a minimization of facial shots, including that of the serial killer and his victims and by ghostly animations.  Have you watched kids’ cartoons lately?

(Rated R: grim crime scenes and photographs; brutal murders w/knives; profanity)

 (Written by C.E. Chambers and published by The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition November 16, 1999.)

 

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