Pulling Punches; ‘Star Trek’ Trickery


Rising above his filmic circumstances, Denzel Washington delivers a mesmerizing, volatile performance as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the New Jersey boxer who spent 20 years in prison for a triple homicide he didn’t commit. Washington is a more experienced actor than he was when he played Malcolm X; as impressive as he was in that film, he has even more depth and concentration here. But he’s limited by a director and scriptwriter who prefer to paint Carter as a saint and a martyr than as a complicated human being, unfairly treated by a racist justice system.

A talented boxer and a defiant black nationalist who never hesitated to show his contempt for the white establishment, including the media, Carter is a great subject for a biopic. The Hurricane, however, asks him to share equal time with a trio of white Canadian social activists (played by Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber, and John Hannah) and an African American boy (Vicellous Reon Shannon) whom they’re fostering and who brings The Sixteenth Round, the autobiography that Carter wrote in prison, to their attention. In the film, this quartet then devotes itself full-time to Carter’s appeals, eventually uncovering the evidence that wins him his release.

As Lewis M. Steel, one of Carter’s lawyers, writes in the January 3 issue of The Nation, the Canadians provided Carter with much needed psychological support but had almost nothing to do with the discovery of evidence or the legal processes. By concocting a fictional drama around their investigations, the film blurs the way an entire racist-tainted system of justice was rigged to reward and protect those who convicted Carter and to keep truth from being told. Similarly the film reduces institutionalized racism to the vindictiveness of one bad-apple cop (Dan Hedaya), who had it in for Carter from childhood. And most improbably, it provides a counterbalance for the bad cop in the form of a corrections officer who bends the rules to secure special privileges for Carter during his 20-year stay in the pen.

It’s a Hollywood adage that the political must be personalized and another that in order to attract a “crossover” audience, a film that features a black hero must provide white heroes as well. The Hurricaneplays by those rules and as a result is far too tepid to either do right by Rubin Carter or expose the racism that exists unchanged in the 35 years since he was railroaded into prison. Does anyone think Giuliani would play the same race card that Carter’s prosecutors did if it wasn’t still the key to political success?

** As luck would have it, the last film I will have seen in a theater in the 20th century is Galaxy Quest. DreamWorks’ Star Trek parody knocks off the characters and costumes of the familiar franchise and adds such Spielbergian touches as suburban science-prodigy teens and innocent aliens given to clapping their hands as if they believed in fairies, or more relevantly, as if they believed the Galaxy Quest TV series was a documentary about human space exploration.

The scientifically advanced but semiotically unsophisticated Thermians intercepted transmissions of Galaxy Quest and built their entire civilization around its technology and codes of comradeship. When their society is threatened by some very bad aliens who look rather like Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things (courtesy of Stan Winston’s creature-effects shop), they enlist the help of the Galaxy Quest cast (Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, and a particularly droll Sam Rockwell), who’ve spent the years since their show was canceled traipsing around to Trekkie-like conventions and presiding over cut-rate electronics-store openings. Believing that the aliens are merely enthusiastic fans, they allow themselves to be transported to another galaxy, where they’re placed at the controls of a spaceship that looks exactly like the set of their TV show. They move the familiar levers and it flies. At this point the movie turns into an extremely elaborate video game featuring intergalactic flying mines and enemy spaceships. The many eight-to-11-year-olds in the audience seemed completely enthralled.