Don't call me Mr Biography!

Submitted by A Gent on Tue, 03/07/2000 - 00:07
Denzel Washington as Rubin ''Hurricane'' Carter

When a man who's already played two black cultural icons tells you there is no agenda at work, that he's only an actor and it just sort of happened that way, m'lud, you'd be forgiven for lobbing an ''Aye, right'' back over the net at him. 

When the actor in question recently won a prestigious Golden Globe for his portrayal of a third black icon - Rubin ''Hurricane'' Carter, the boxer framed for murder by a racist police force in the 1960s and later celebrated in song by Bob Dylan - you'd almost certainly lob it back with top spin. 

But Denzel Washington is adamant. Malcolm X, he says, was a role he had coveted from 1981, when he played the black power agitator on stage, so when a part came up in Spike Lee's biopic 10 years later, he jumped at the chance. 

As for playing Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough's searing 1987 film Cry Freedom, that was an obvious step up for an actor whose profile at the time came largely from his role in television's St Elsewhere. 

Dream roles and convenient breaks - that's all. Co-incidence. Don't make it into something it isn't. 

''I'm an actor. It's not that deep,'' he says, his lazily cultured accent still flavoured with the urgent verbal rhythms of his New York birthplace. ''I need to be angry, I can act angry.'' 

Right now, though, he's acting placid and with that familiar half-smile playing round his lips, you're almost inclined to believe his protestations. 

''I didn't want to be known as Mr Biography,'' he says. ''There was no plan. Who knew when I met Richard Attenborough, when he asked me to do Cry Freedom, what the future held?'' 

Who indeed, although exposure to his talismanic onscreen presence should have given most audiences an inkling that this focussed, statuesque man was destined to become Hollywood's pre-eminent black actor. But let that lie. 

Fully formed now, the man before me today looks every inch the confident star. Tall, generous with his smile and sporting a goatee which he strokes from time to time, only the familiar sloping shoulders blunt the impression of cocksure physicality. Instead, they give him a slightly vulnerable look which, onscreen, he uses to his advantage. 

His lead role in The Hurricane, Norman Jewison's film of the events surrounding Rubin Carter's conviction, the decades he spent in prison and his subsequent acquittal, earned the actor an Oscar nomination. He knew he was up against history in the battle for that coveted little man.

''No African-American has won Best Actor since Sidney Poitier in Lillies Of The Field [1963],'' he explains. ''No African-American had won Best Actor in the Golden Globes since Sidney Poitier until I did the other day.'' 

Rubin ''Hurricane'' Carter's journey into infamy began on June 17, 1966, when two gunmen entered the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, and shot three people dead. Witnesses later claimed to have seen two black men escaping in a white car. 

That same night, Carter, then a successful boxer on the east coast circuit, was arrested in a white car with John Artis, a young fight fan. Although released and exonerated a fortnight later by a grand jury, they were later re-arrested, tried and convicted of the murders. They were each sentenced to three life terms. 

In 1974, Carter, who always maintained his innocence, published his autobiography, The Sixteenth Round. Subsequently, the witnesses whose evidence had convicted him - themselves petty criminals - recanted and said they had been leant on by Paterson detectives to incriminate the two men. 

Two years later, Carter's conviction was overturned and he was released on bail - only to be returned to jail nine months later after a second trial. He continued to appeal but it was to be another 12 years before he was finally cleared and released. 

There are many other strands to the story but the one Jewison's movie concentrates on is the relationship between Carter and Lesra Martin, a young illiterate Brooklyn teenager.

Semi-adopted by a commune of liberal Canadians in Toronto, it was Martin who discovered an old copy of Carter's book, read it and determined to write to him, despite the fact Carter had distanced himself from the outside world. 

Inspired by their ward's determination and touched by Carter's plight, the agitation of the commune members finally led to Carter's release. 

''It's really the emotional story between Lesra and Rubin that's at the heart of it,'' says Jewison. ''Without Lesra making that move, nothing would have happened.'' 

For the veteran director, much of the heart-rending magic of the story can be condensed into the second at which Martin, played by Vicellous Reon Shannon, picks up an old copy of The Sixteenth Round. ''It's a mystical moment,'' he says. 

''When you think that here's a kid who had never read a book, couldn't read, couldn't write, was 15 years old - now if he hadn't picked up that book, would Rubin still be in jail? Would he have died there? And he read the book and he wrote a letter. 

''Rubin never answered any letters - he'd cut himself off from society, his family, certainly from any white folks, why did he pick up the letter? And I asked him, I asked Rubin. I said 'Why did you pick up that letter?' and he said 'Well I looked at the stamp and it had the Queen of England on it.' And he was curious, realised the letter was from Canada and when he read what Lesra wrote it touched him. Maybe it was the first thing that touched him.'' 

For the purposes of cinematic brevity only three of Lesra Martin's nine guardians - Terry Swinton, Lisa Peters and Sam Chaiton (played by John Hannah, Deborah Unger and Liev Schreiber) - make the cut and the fact that Carter subsequently married Peters is alluded to in only the most coded fashion.

Similarly the institutionalised racism of the police force has been distilled into the person of one malignant cop who pursues a decade-long vendetta against Carter. He didn't exist. 

Neither did Jimmy, the obligatory decent prison guard who looks out for Carter during his stretch. Changes such as these have mired the film in controversy even before it has opened in the UK. Jewison deflects criticism by being pragmatic about the alterations. Washington, meanwhile, is simply dismissive. After all, he says: ''Rubin's five foot eight, 150-odd. pounds, I'm six-one and north of 200 pounds, so I guess the controversy should have started there, huh? I'm too big.'' 

Ultimately such details are meaningless. The Hurricane is a film about the triumph of will over adversity and a significant sideswipe at another shameful chapter in America's recent past. 

It's also a film about journeys. Carter goes from troubled child to dignified adult via a stint in the army, during which he takes up boxing and gains a sense of purpose. It's this and his unwillingness to accept the limitations of his prison cell, allied to Lesra Martin's belief in him, which bring him through. And in an instance of art imitating life, Washington says his pursuit of the character of Carter began to pay off when he started 15 months of punishing physical training which included learning to box. 

''I made sure I had a sense of what I thought Rubin felt. I mean he is Rubin Hurricane Carter, so the Hurricane part of him I found and came to know in myself through the boxing training. I found out that I liked to fight, didn't mind inflicting pain, didn't want to get hurt, but I had it in me.'' 

Don't even think of calling Denzel Washington Mr Biography.

Filmmaking