Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, ex-prizefighter, author, and falsely accused triple murderer, has told his story many, many times. During his 19 years of wrongful imprisonment, he talked to dozens of attorneys, several reporters, and eight roommates from Canada, three of whom turned freeing him into a full-time mission; since Carter’s release in 1985, he’s discussed his relationship to those Canadians with at least three screenwriters, a journalist at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, and three producers. He even wrote a 1974 memoir, The 16th Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, and helped two of the Canadians, Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, with their own book about the event, 1991’s Lazarus and the Hurricane.
You’d think after all this talking, someone would have gotten the story straight. But the transformation of Carter’s experiences into The Hurricane, a feature film starring Denzel Washington and directed by Norman Jewison (Moonstruck), has been marked by as many feints, dodges, and sucker punches as any Carter prizefight. Because in Hollywood, just as in the ring, all eyes are on the prize, and it’s not about a gold belt, but a golden statue.
“Late of an April evening in 1974, Rubin Carter was sitting at the small desk in his 5-by-7-foot cell in Rahway (N.J.) State Prison, reading the manuscript of his autobiography, when he picked up that faint, familiar scent of menace in the incarcerated air.” So begins William Nack’s 7,000-word piece in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (a sister publication of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s at Time Inc.), which proved seminal in getting The Hurricane made after years of the cold shoulder.
Nack’s story focused on Carter’s relationship with Lesra Martin, a Brooklyn teen taken in by the Canadians to be homeschooled. In 1980, Martin read Carter’s book and persuaded his mentors to help Carter’s lawyers gather evidence; eventually, housemates Chaiton, Swinton, and Lisa Peters (whom Carter would ultimately marry and then separate from) moved to New Jersey to help Carter’s cause. A dramatic story, but one about which few people seemed to care — until the April 1992 publication of Nack’s article.
“The thing that made a real difference was that story,” says Chaiton. “[We] came to the attention of the studios. Our phone started ringing off the hook.” Nack’s article not only perked up Hollywood’s antennae, but may have served as a guide for those who would come to work on the project. (In fact, two of Hurricane‘s producers mistakenly believed that Nack’s article had been optioned; says one, Rudy Langlais, “The article provided underlying material.”) Screenwriter Dan Gordon (Passenger 57) credits the piece with helping him nail Hurricane‘s complicated beginning — introducing Carter in jail, then jumping forward to Martin’s discovery of Carter’s book. And scripter Christopher Cleveland, who also worked on the movie, says the article in SI was the first material the filmmakers sent him. Even Jewison says, “I think the piece inspired me.”