Clayton native James S. Hirsch gets to the eye of The Hurricane in a new biography of Rubin Carter

Denzel Washington's looking fine, dressed in a soldier's uniform. There's a little strut to his step as he enters a Paterson, N.J., bar. He's a pleasing eyeful to a table of women as he approaches the bartender.

Then Washington, playing Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in the recent Norman Jewison film The Hurricane, orders a soda and orders one of the attractive women a soda, too -- like Alan Ladd ordering a sarsparilla in Shane.

The Carter Hurricane audiences don't see was an alcoholic. They do not see the Carter who was an arrogant, high-strutting carouser, a cruel barroom brawler, a man with a penchant for guns, a womanizer. They do not see a juvenile delinquent who stabbed a man while in the act of stealing his gold watch.

Biographer James Hirsch finds the good in Rubin Carter (above) through all his faults.
Perry Catena
Biographer James Hirsch finds the good in Rubin Carter (above) through all his faults.

They see an African-American man wrongfully accused, who spent nearly 20 years of his life in New Jersey prisons for a triple murder. They see a good man brought down by racism who battles the forces of evil until he is vindicated at last. They see a troubled boy stabbing a white man, defending other black boys from a pederast.

The Rubin Carter of The Hurricane is a cartoon saint.

If Washington represents the ultimate good, then character actor Dan Hedaya represents the ultimate evil -- a scenarist's creation given the something-fishy name of Vincent Della Pesca -- who hounds Carter throughout his life. Det. Della Pesca is the monster from which all misfortune comes.

Less cinematic, although more frightening, is the actual system that put Carter and John Artis behind bars for the murder of three whites in a Paterson bar in 1966 -- the long list of police, prosecutors and judges who found a convenient murder suspect in the former middleweight contender, a symbol of black rage and white fear in the volatile 1960s, another uppity black man to be brought down.

Film audiences do not see Carter today, a man in his 60s living in Toronto -- a man who tends to his garden, works for the rights of the wrongfully accused and no longer watches the sport that gave him his name, a sport he now considers a form of barbarism. Instead, audiences see the final shot, the youthful Hurricane in the black-and-white Friday-night-fight past, arms raised in victory.

Anyone who goes to a movie and expects a factual depiction of historical events is naive, of course. The Hollywood system removes shades of gray, elicits clear distinctions between good and evil and provides a simple narrative: good heroically overcomes the obstacles evil sets in its way. Emotional uplift is achieved. All this and popcorn, too.

James S. Hirsch's authorized biography, Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter, is not only a more accurate depiction of Carter's life and times, it is a better story. Evil is presented as evil is, a system of lies rather than a lurking bogeyman. Hirsch finds the good in Rubin Carter through all his faults, a more compelling figure because of his humanity.

Hirsch, in town recently for a booksigning at Library Ltd., doesn't denigrate the film version of Carter's life. The success of his book -- already in a fifth printing after only three weeks in bookstores -- has dovetailed with the popularity of the film. Why complain?

"I think people should see the film," Hirsch says. "It's a great story. Anything that sheds light on Rubin's life or stimulates discussion about his experiences is good. The film does that."

Hirsch also commends the film's producers. A movie about a wrongfully imprisoned African-American man does not have the glow of boffo box-office success, even with superstar Washington in the title role, yet the studio has obviously set all its promotional gears in motion in support of The Hurricane.

Hollywood wasn't one of Hirsch's concerns when he chose to investigate Carter's story, however. Like a lot of journalists, he was in search of a book project. Hirsch's agent learned through the grapevine that Carter might be interested in having someone write his story. Hirsch admits he knew little about Carter's case, but the idea appealed to his interests in sport, pop culture and race.

However, Hirsch's life experience makes him seem an unlikely candidate for Carter's biography. Hirsch grew up in Clayton and went to Clayton High (class of 1980). He attended Mizzou's journalism school and later received a masters in public policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas. He worked three years at the New York Times, starting as a clerk and moving to a one-year reporting stint, then wrote for the Wall Street Journal for nine years.

Hirsch had never boxed; he'd never been in prison; and he was white. Hirsch is soft-spoken and appears much younger than he does in his jacket photo. Somehow the Clayton kid managed to persuade the Paterson brawler that Hirsch was the one to tell the real story, and not the mythology, of "Hurricane" Carter.

"Rubin respects strength," says Hirsch. "He would not have cooperated with this book if he thought I was going to do a puff piece about him. He wouldn't have cooperated if he could intimidate me. Intimidation has always been, and still is to this day, a big part of who he is. If he can roll over you, he will."

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