How many innocent people can be wrongly convicted if it means a certain number of criminals are correctly found guilty? The Hurricane answers this question in a powerful manner, and the answer is clear when you walk out of the movie.
Based on a true story (made famous by Bob Dylan's song Hurricane, and Nelson Algren's book), The Hurricane chronicles the story how Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (Denzel Washington) leads a life haunted by the ghost of racism and discrimination. From a very young age, Rubin is hounded by a police officer, Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), who in the film is held responsible for sending Rubin to prison thrice. The third time, after Rubin has become a world-class boxer, he is framed for three murders in Patterson, NJ.
Each injustice adds to the empathy we feel for Rubin: the first time, he is a little boy who pays a price in freedom for saving his friend from being molested. The second time, he pays the price for serving his country and building a life for himself. But it is the third affront that is the focus of this film. After Della Pesca succeeds in the frame-up, Rubin writes a book about the miscarriage of justice that has occurred to him. Years go by and he slowly begins to give up hope in prison.
But a copy of the book finds its way into the hands of Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a young teenager from Brooklyn, New York, living with three young Canadians who take him under their wing to help him realise his ambition to go to college. Lesra begins communicating with Rubin and they form a bond together: in Rubin, Lesra sees a purpose to his life, and in Lesra, Rubin sees hope. Lesra and his Canadian "family" go to extreme lengths to have Rubin freed, and they finally succeed by uncovering evidence that had been covered up that would have exonerated Rubin.
The acting is superb. The pacing is tight, and the story is presented in such a compelling manner that it had me in tears more than once: From the scenes where Rubin Carter gravitates between having hope and giving it up, to the scenes where Lesra in a childlike manner wonders at the injustice that is happening, to the cruelty and apathy of the American justice system.
There is one minor problem that I had with The Hurricane and that it is too black and white. The good guys are always good and the bad guys are always bad, and it's always easy to figure out who is who. To me, no matter how clear cut a particular incident is, life isn't that simple. The only reason this is a minor problem is because the film claims to be based on a true story. But the messages in The Hurricane wouldn't become any dimmer if it were a work of fiction, and I think the artistic license employed here can be overlooked.
The sad thing is that there only a few people like Rubin who have the skills and resources to articulate their position and regain freedom. Think of all the people, who are not so lucky as to possess the skills to author a book and find someone caring enough about them, still in prison (or facing death) for crimes they didn't commit. (Alexander Volokh published an article in 1997 in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review where the argument was made that for every sixty criminals, one innocent person was made to suffer unjustly.)
Which brings to me to a point about the legal system (see my review of a film In the Name of the Father with a similar theme as this one, and my general musings on this topic). In a nutshell, I believe power corrupts. If you look at the record of U.S. Congress, for example, they're hardly the sort of people who should be running this country (i.e., based on the number of trespasses they've committed based on laws they themselves have passed)! The problem with a legal system and a police agency enforcing it is that people who are in power are generally those who seek it. And people who covet power are not the ones who should be having power over others, because that is what leads to the kind of abuse we see depicted in The Hurricane. Things could certainly be worse, but that doesn't mean we have to be satisfied with the current system. To me, it is intolerable that a single innocent person has his freedom to move around and live be abridged in the name of some "greater good".