In The Eye Of 'The Hurricane'

Denzel Washington may make almost $10 million a movie, but he's not afraid to take a punch. When he took on the role of Rubin (Hurricane) Carter--the real-life middleweight contender imprisoned for 19 years for a murder he didn't commit--Washington trained as if he'd been given a shot at the title. He lost 44 pounds, and spent day after day taking punches: "I put my heart and soul into it. We were doing a lot of the full-body boxing, which I loved, but I began getting headaches and memory loss--that was a problem. It's a tough sport. I knew that already, because I know [Tyson] and Ali. But I can't give it up. It's addictive."

Washington gives a heavyweight performance in Norman Jewison's powerful movie "The Hurricane." Jewison, who also directed Washington in his breakthrough role in "A Soldier's Story," claims that by the end of filming he couldn't tell the actor from Carter himself: "He had his walk, the way he spoke, the way he carried his body. This role is probably his best work." Jewison is biased, but he may be right. Washington has been extraordinary before--as Stephen Biko in "Cry Freedom," as Malcolm X in Spike Lee's epic and as the '40s sleuth in "Devil in a Blue Dress." But playing Carter stretches him in new ways. The hero of Jewison's movie--whom Bob Dylan commemorated in his anthem "Hurricane"--is a man who kept reinventing himself to survive. In trouble with the law since childhood, Carter was a soldier and then, because of his devastating punch, a celebrity with a wife, a daughter and a shot at the title. All that ended in 1966 when he and another innocent man were framed for killing three people in a Paterson, N.J., bar.

In "The Hurricane," Carter struggles to stay sane in prison, as rage and despair battle for the upper hand. Knowing that hope makes him vulnerable, he turns inward--refusing even to see his wife and daughter. Washington perfectly captures the steeliness of Carter's will. It's a moving, fiercely compacted performance that invites us to marvel at the resilience of the spirit. "The Hurricane" has a lot of ground to cover, and it jumps back and forward in time, not always gracefully. Carter's saga alternates with the story of Lesra Martin (the excellent Vicellous Reon Shannon), a black teenager who reads the boxer's jailhouse autobiography, then helps him overturn his conviction. Lesra has been adopted by three white Canadian idealists who will ultimately devote their lives to freeing Carter. Who on earth are these people? The truth is they're composite figures boiled down from the nine commune members who worked for Carter's release--though not quite in the Hardy Boy manner the movie presents.

The screenplay takes a more dubious liberty by inventing a racist and corrupt New Jersey detective (played by Dan Hedaya) with a lifelong vendetta against our hero. This melodramatic device succeeds in getting the blood boiling--audiences like their villains unregenerate--but by putting the onus on one evil white man, it diminishes the systemic racism that kept Carter behind bars. Perhaps these are the compromises Hollywood filmmakers have to make to get a true story of a black hero made. It would be nice if "The Hurricane" trusted the audience to swallow a less simplistic view of reality. (Was Carter always a victim of injustice? At every step of his life?) Still, this rousing tale of hideously belated justice throws knockout blows. "Hurricane" may get sidetracked in its "O Canada" salute--Jewison was born in Toronto--but whenever Washington is on screen, it hums with intensity and conviction.

With due respect to Will Smith, Washington has been the pre-eminent black actor of the '90s, and he clearly feels some responsibility to present an upstanding image. He had no interest in playing slave roles like the leads in "Beloved" and "Amistad," and he has shied away from interracial love stories. Washington dropped out of the romance "Love Field" with Michelle Pfeiffer and, before making "The Pelican Brief" with Julia Roberts, lobbied to have what he believed were out-of-character love scenes cut from the script. "I know that a large part of my audience is black women," he says. "I also know there aren't many black love stories they can see on the big screen--and that's an issue."

While the star projects a straitlaced image, he's loose and funny in person. When the cameras aren't rolling, the 6-foot-1 actor favors baggy sweats, tennis shoes and baseball hats. He glides into the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills with his signature I'm the man strut, and the businessmen in ties look up in awe. Washington is a sports fanatic (he has Lakers floor seats across from Jack Nicholson's) and an emphatic lover of hip-hop (he can recite a DMX or Nas verse smoother than a 15-year-old in Brooklyn).

Washington grew up middle class in the city of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., and his parents divorced when he was 14. The actor himself has been married to the same woman, Pauletta Pearson, for 17 years. They have four kids, and Washington is determined to be there for them in ways his own father couldn't be. His father was a Pentecostal minister. He spent a lot of time at work and wasn't the type for hugs and kisses. "When my first child was born it was clear where my commitment was going to be," says Washington. "I make the recitals, the football game, whatever, because you can't tell your kid, 'Sorry, I can't raise you now--I have a career.' My father didn't have the option--he didn't have the money I have." Whether or not it's his first priority, Washington's career has been dazzling. He expects that black actors of his children's generation will make even greater strides. "The term they use is being kept down by the glass ceiling. I tell people: the ceiling is glass, not lead. Which means we can break it down."