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An ill wind

Movie studios learned from The Hurricane's fatal fudging of facts

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Denzel Washington as Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who was depicted in the film The Hurricane as being nearly saintly.

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Denzel Washington as Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who was depicted in the film The Hurricane as being nearly saintly.

Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who died Sunday at age 76, was at the centre of one of the most talked-about miscarriages of justice in recent American history: He served 19 years in prison for three murders before his convictions were set aside.

But the former middleweight boxer also figured prominently in a related Hollywood drama, focused on the ways that negative publicity can destroy an Academy Awards campaign and how studios in the years that followed largely mastered the art of heading off Oscar criticism before it was too late.

The 1999 movie The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison, looked on paper to have awards merit in excess. Jewison had made the critically acclaimed Moonstruck and In the Heat of the Night, and the tale of how Carter (played by Denzel Washington) was railroaded and later freed made for a compelling, true-life tale of never giving up that appeared certain to resonate inside liberal Hollywood. Universal touted the film as a "triumphant true story of an innocent man's 20-year fight for justice."

But The Hurricane's novice screenwriter Armyan Bernstein took a number of liberties in adapting the books The 16th Round and Lazarus and the Hurricane. The screenplay and movie not only distorted Carter's boxing history, suggesting he lost a famous match to Joey Giardello only because of racist judges, but also depicted the boxer as nearly saintly, even though Carter had served time for muggings. The movie also created a fictional racist police detective stalking Carter and misstated the racial composition of a jury that convicted Carter.

Just before the film was released, New York Post columnist Jack Newfield blasted the picture as a "horrible falsification of history." Then, ex-New York Times reporter Selwyn Raab, whose original reporting uncovered evidence that played a role in overturning Carter's original conviction, called the film a "fairy tale" that rewrote history "for dramatic effect."

Distributor Universal Pictures was slow to respond to the attacks, waiting three weeks to counter Raab's broadside.

It was a curious strategy, given that in the years leading up to The Hurricane, two other seemingly strong Oscar contenders -- The People vs. Larry Flynt and Mississippi Burning -- had been crushed under a wave of negative publicity about their creative embellishments in retelling fact-based stories.

The Hurricane was slowly but inevitably buried by its naysayers. Rather than make a strong showing at the Oscars, the film was nominated only once -- for Washington as lead actor, who lost to Kevin Spacey for his performance in American Beauty.

"Sometimes I wish we'd made a movie about Julius Caesar," Universal publicity chief Terry Curtin said at the time. "At least none of his Roman legions are around to complain about whether every little detail of his life is accurate or not."

But the lesson was learned.

Two years later, Universal released Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, which took a number of liberties in relating the life of mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe). Among the items excised or minimized from his life in Akiva Goldsman's screenplay: Nash's arrest for indecent exposure; his homosexuality; his fathering an illegitimate child; and his divorce.

Universal was ready for the assault and convened an almost daily "war room" meeting designed to respond quickly to any and all challenges. When the Oscars rolled around, A Beautiful Mind won four Oscars, including best picture.

In recent years, as Hollywood turned out a steady supply of highbrow dramas based on real people and historical events, studios paid close attention to their films' factual variances.

Just last year, the "based on a true story" slate included 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Fruitvale Station, Saving Mr. Banks, The Wolf of Wall Street, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club and American Hustle (for which writer-director David O. Russell added this caveat: "Some of this actually happened").

Ben Affleck won the best picture for Argo, successfully defending a third act that was almost complete fiction as being dramatically imperative.

Not every studio has been able to emulate Universal's Beautiful Mind effort -- Sony Pictures failed to control the debate over the factual legitimacy of 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, and the movie won just one Oscar trophy, for sound editing.

But to this day, those who don't remember the history of The Hurricane are doomed to repeat it.

-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2014 C3

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