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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

September 24, 2013: Justice is Not Color Blind: The Hurricane

[In this week’s series, I’ll highilght American histories and stories that help us contextualize one of the summer’s most controversial moments: the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict. Like that case, each of these topics was and is a lightning rod—but what good is AmericanStudies if it can’t help us take hold of such charged conversations? Add your thoughts to the electric mix, please!]
On the benefits of the macro and micro approaches to representing history.
I wrote at the end of yesterday’s post about comforting but limiting mythologized historical narratives, the kind in which (for example) great men (or women) achieve meaningful advances, bad people produce the dark histories, and never the twain shall meet. The problem with those narratives isn’t just that the world doesn’t work that way—it’s that they make it impossible to get at either the complex realities or the deeper truths of the past. Take the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, for example—by all accounts, including his own, boxing champ Carter had a lengthy and deserved criminal record at the time of 1966 arrest and 1967 trial for triple murder; it’s also undeniable that the evidence against Carter was (at best) extremely weak, and almost certainly manipulated and falsified by racist police offers on a vendetta against Carter, and after nearly twenty years in prison Carter was freed in late 1985. But can we tell the latter story while acknowledging the former aspects of Carter’s identity and life?
In his 1975 song “Hurricane,” Bob Dylan opted to focus entirely on the macro histories, the story of individual and institutionalized racial prejudice and injustice “in a land where justice is a game.” As such, Dylan’s song focuses at length on the identities and perspectives of Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, the two career criminals on whose testimonies much of the case against Carter depended; and very little on those of Carter, about whom (outside of the details of the arrest and trial) we learn only that he was a “number one contender for the middleweight crown” who “could take a man out with just one punch / but he never did like to talk about it all that much.” Dylan’s choice makes sense, particularly given the broader histories of racism and lynching with which the Carter case must be contextualized (alongside the 1966 race riots that were unfolding at the time of Carter’s arrest, and to which Dylan alludes in the line “Four months later the ghettos are in flame”), and in light of which the individual identity of an African American man made absolutely no difference. But on the other hand, for those who learn about Carter’s case from Dylan’s song, the specifics of Carter’s own life and identity would seem to be part of the story as well, not because they necessarily change the broader realities but precisely because those realities tend to elide individual identity.
More than two decades later, Norman Jewison’s 1999 film biopic The Hurricane took a distinctly different approach to the story. The film is far from a documentary, and has been critiqued for its factual inaccuracies; but where it succeeds, thanks both to its intimate focus and to a truly stunning performance from Denzel Washington, is in its extended development of Carter’s character and perspective. As such, the film directly flips the narratives of faceless or interchangeable African American men within a racist system, becoming instead, quite literally, the story of Carter/Washington’s face as it evolves over his time in prison. That is, while its simplifications of some of the case’s broad details require an audience to investigate further in order to learn more about the relevant histories, its close attention to Carter helps it reveal profound truths about what such broad systems and histories can do to the people caught up in and affected by them. While Dylan’s song is the story of the kind of tragic storms that so often have swept our nation’s race relations and dynamics, the film is instead the story of The Hurricance himself; both have a great deal to tell us about ourselves.
Next case tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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