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

Hirsch apparently could hold his own with Carter, despite their disparate backgrounds. Growing up in Clayton, Hirsch admits, "I had more of an academic sense of race relations in American than any firsthand witnessing of racial strife."

He set out to better understand the environment that made Carter: "As a white person, I definitely had to do a lot of research to understand a black person's view of the world. For example, if I felt some threat to my security, or to my family's security, I don't give a second thought of calling the police and asking the police for help.

"If you were a black man in Paterson in the 1960s and you had a problem, or some fear for your safety, you didn't call the police, because you feared the police. The police were more often than not those who were causing the problem.

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.

"I only really came to understand this by going to Paterson and talking to a lot of black people there, and a few white people there. The Paterson city historian is in his 60s now. He told me about how he would be on the streets in Paterson in the '60s and he'd watch the cops beating the hell out of some black guy for no apparent reason. That was the tenor of the times."

Racism was the primary motive for pinning the murder of three whites on the most revered, and feared, African-American in Paterson. "In the first trial," Hirsch explains, "there I think the political pressures were much more intense. They had to find the killer. You couldn't have the specter of black-mob vigilantism stalking across Paterson. The white establishment would never countenance that. You had a mayor who was a law-and-order zealot, who controlled the police. They may have believed something along the lines that "Even if Rubin isn't the killer of this crime, he's a violent person. We'll be doing a good deed if we get him off the streets.'"

Carter's case became a radical-chic cause célèbre in the 1970s, with Bob Dylan's "Hurricane" ("Put in a prison cell, but one time he could have been the champion of the world") and with rallies and fundraisers led by the likes of Muhammad Ali and Ellen Burstyn. But in 1976, Carter and Artis were granted a second jury trial -- and received a second guilty verdict. After this, the celebrities disappeared.

Enter "the Canadians," members of a Toronto commune who threw their money, time and will into Carter's case. Again, the complexities of the commune are diminished in The Hurricane. The commune becomes streamlined into three amorphous characters. They might as well be played by the Coneheads.

The film slyly suggests a budding attraction between the commune's leader, Lisa Peters (played by Deborah Kara Unger), and Carter, a relationship that was tempestuous. "Carter respected Lisa because she didn't take any lip from him," Hirsch observes. "When Rubin tried to push back against her she would cut him to shreds. Rubin wasn't accustomed to that, particularly from a woman. But it's why he trusted her and partly why he fell in love with her."

The prison romance dissolved even before Carter was freed. Carter lived at the commune for a time, but, as Hirsch writes, "he could no more live in a commune than an eagle could live in a bird cage."

Hirsch says the commune still exists, and he interviewed several of its members, although Peters declined to be part of the book. "The core group is still there. They're an intriguing group of people. They're smart. They're resourceful. They're persistent, and they had this worldview. They had this belief in their own exceptionalism -- anything that they put their minds to accomplish, they could do."

In spite of, and partly because of, the media attention paid to Carter, New Jersey authorities still insist on Carter's guilt. The Passaic County sheriff told Hirsch that after 19 years of incarceration, Carter deserves no apology -- rather, he said, Carter owes the state of New Jersey room and board.

The tough realities of Carter's life story can be found in Hirsch's biography. There are villains and heroes in the book, but they are human, not one-dimensional figures made to carry a simple plotline to its inevitable conclusion.

Ironically, the "triumph of the human spirit" motif that Hollywood so dearly loves is more fully realized in the story Hirsch presents. "What separated Rubin's story," his biographer concludes, "was his struggle within."

A struggle not so easily depicted on the big screen.

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