Actor Denzel Washington says he was hooked from the first moment he read the script for "The Hurricane," a film about the boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
"I've never read anything like it," says the man who has portrayed such diverse black icons as Malcolm X and South African activist Steven Biko.
Now Washington portrays a boxer who was imprisoned for murders he didn't commit and waged a 20-year fight to prove his innocence. Training to play the prizefighter in his glory days took Washington nearly a year of daily workouts and tightly choreographed fight sessions. He lost 60 pounds.
The commitment required to bring Carter to life, however, is typical of Washington's career. "I like to find material that has something to say," he says. "It's actually harder to do a movie you don't believe in."
The son of what he describes as being a devoutly religious mother, Washington says he believes in roles that will "do good." He says he already knows the value of his current project to Carter, the man whose life it depicts.
"This film is part of the healing process for [Carter]," the actor says.
The film's director, Norman Jewison, sees the need for continuing to heal the deep wounds inflicted by racism in the United States.
"As a director, I've always looked for stories which reflect social and human conditions," says Mr. Jewison, for whom this film completes a trilogy ("Soldier's Story," "In the Heat of the Night") that deals with racial issues in America. "I wanted to make this story 10 years ago, but nobody wanted to make it. It's the same old thing. Do we really believe that there is no race discrimination any more?"
Carter's imprisonment became a national cause clbre during the 1960s and '70s, and was immortalized in singer Bob Dylan's "Hurricane." It became part of the popular culture through Carter's own book, "The Sixteenth Round." But his conviction also stood up to two trials and an appeal.
"[Carter] had to draw on everything he knew to maintain his sense of himself," says Washington, who worked with him during the filming. "He used the skills he'd perfected as a boxer to keep a real sense of who he was."
The boxer had to reach a more spiritual view of himself, the actor says. "He realized he had to accept their terms, but he wasn't going to do it as a guilty man. He had to go deep inside himself." Only then, Washington says, did the real-life Carter redeem his name.
The turning point came when Lesra Martin, a black American teenager living in Canada, picked up Carter's book and enlisted a group of social activists in Toronto to reinvestigate Carter's case.
"[Carter] had gone deep inside himself to find something more spiritual, higher than the hate and injustice," Washington says. "Only then, does this kid appear, seemingly out of nowhere." As a result of the young boy's passion, new evidence came to light that led to the setting aside of Carter's conviction.
The real-life Mr. Martin, now a lawyer in Toronto, says that at first the case discouraged him from pursuing law as a profession.
"I thought that if this could happen to Carter, it could happen to anyone," he says.
But ultimately, he changed his mind.
"All of my friends who got in trouble needed lawyers, so I knew I'd get paid," he says with a soft laugh, reflecting on his own rise from the streets of Brooklyn.
Martin remembers how Carter's autobiography was more than just a book to him.
"It was the very first book I ever read," he says. He now reads voraciously. If he knew then what he knows now about how difficult the case would be, he doubts he would have taken up Carter's cause. But "the power of the written word is amazing," Martin says. "Sometimes, I'm afraid to pick up a book. Who knows where it will take me?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society