The Hurricane – Rubin Carter

“The Hurricane” is the story of middleweight boxer Rubin Carter, based on the accounts of Carter’s own autobiography as well as the book written by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, the Canadian family that helped overturn Carter’s conviction.

At an early age, Carter understands all-too-well the negative powers of racism while growing up in rural New Jersey. As time progresses, Carter grows to hate white men for their arrogance and continual oppression of black culture, which in turn leads Carter into the world of boxing – the perfect venue to expel his own anger and hatred. A strong contender in the ring, Carter makes quite a name for himself as one of the all-time heavy-hitters despite encountering prejudice from the outside world.

Driving home one night from a club, Carter is arrested on suspicion of a triple homicide at a nearby bar. A man named Arthur Bello, who himself is a suspect, attests that Carter and his alleged accomplice, John Artis, were present in the bar at the time the murders took place. Though the case appears based on racism rather than fact, both men are ultimately convicted. Carter is sentenced to serve three life sentences in a Trenton, New Jersey prison.

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Below is ESPN’s documentary on Rubin Carter, as part of their SportsCentury series. There are interviews with Carter, John Artis, Lesra, and many other people who were involved in this story.

Singer/ songwriter Bob Dylan wrote the song “Hurricane” as a protest to what he felt was the wrongful imprisonment of Carter. The video is below, and the lyrics are here.

The Hurricane – Real Life, Reel Differences

  • The film shows Rubin Carter being sent to a reformatory at the age of 11 for defending himself and his friend against a potential child molester. In actually, he was sent at age 14 for robbing and beating a male civilian. In general, the movie portrayed Carter as a near-model citizen, of which he was not. Omitted from the movie was Carter’s 4 years in prison as an adult for several muggings. It was these criminal acts which suggested a violent personality and ultimately hurt his defense in court.
  • The film shows Carter as a top middleweight contender in 1966 at the time of the murders, yet Carter’s boxing career was actually on the decline during this period. He had fallen to number nine in the rankings and his record stood at a meager 7-7-1.
  • Carter and Artis are pulled over in the film after the shootings have taken place. The police tell them that they are looking for two black men in a white car. Carter immediately responds, “Any two will do?” implying that there is a racist motive behind the questioning. In actuality, Carter’s vehicle was an exact match of the getaway car, as described by witnesses. Furthermore, the film shows no incriminating evidence being found Carter’s car but in reality, the police covering the investigation found a shotgun shell and bullet casings. These were later found to be the same caliber as the murder weapon.
  • The character of Vincent Della Pesca was based on Vincent DeSimone, who was the lead detective covering the case. However, DeSimone had a good reputation and was not the racist as depicted in the film. Several other inaccuracies in the film misportrayed DeSimone. First, DeSimone had never met Carter before the murders so could not have hounded him as a child; DeSimone passed away in 1979, so he could not have been present, nor could he have threatened Carter’s Canadian supporters prior to the 1985 trial.

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Research online shows that the true story of Rubin Carter is a lot more complex and controversial than how it was told in the movie. He wasn’t as squeaky-clean a character as depicted in the film, he hadn’t been singled out by a racist detective, and the uncertainty by which the plausible evidence was obtained exposed the frailty in the criminal justice system. Here are links to a few sites which explore Carter’s story in more detail:

  • “The Hurricane” Misleads a Trusting Public – highlights some main mis-truths from the movie. Within this site are hyperlinks to actual police reports from the case and portions of an audio transcript where Bello identifies Rubin Carter and John Artis as the gunmen.
  • Separating Truth From Fiction in ‘The Hurricane’ – written by Selwyn Raab on December 28, 1999, one night before the premier of “The Hurricane”. The article compares events from real life with how they were told in the movie. Raab had unique insight because he was an investigative reporter for The New York Times and had covered Rubin Carter’s case since the 1970s.
  • Sports of The Times; One Man Carter Movie Ignored – As Denzel Washington, who portrayed Rubin Carter in “The Hurricane”, wins the Golden Globe for best actor in a drama, Dave Anderson publishes this article on February 6, 2000 citing the inaccuracies in the movie.
  • Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, Boxer Found Wrongly Convicted, Dies at 76 – more than 14 years after his initial article, Selwyn Raab writes this chronological biography of Carter’s life on April 20, 2014, the day of Carter’s death.

Where are they Now?

Rubin Carter and his first wife, Mae Thelma, divorced in 1984; together, the couple had a son and daughter. A year later on November 8, 1985, District Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin ruled that Rubin Carter and John Artis would be free men, due to the fact that “extensive record clearly demonstrates that petitioner’s convictions were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” For the next three years, the state of New Jersey appealed Sarokin’s decision all the way to the United States Supreme Court, until a Passaic County (NJ) state judge formally dismissed the case in February 1988 and put an end to the saga that lasted 22 years.

Finally free, Carter moved to Toronto, Canada, to live in the same commune as Lesra Martin, Sam Chaiton, Terry Swinton, and Lisa Peters, the primary benefactors that helped set Carter and Artis free. He worked with Chaiton and Swinton to publish a book in 1991, Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Untold Story of the Freeing of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. He and Peters developed a relationship and are technically still married, though Carter states that their “marriage” was never consummated. The two separated when Carter left the commune in 1994. While the commune served as a comfortable “halfway house” for Carter upon his release, he said that over time, it began to feel like prison again, prompting Carter to move out.

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Lesra Martin completed his BA in Anthropology at the University of Toronto in 1988 and earned his Law degree Dalhousie Law School in 1997. He served as Crown Prosecutor in Kamloops, British Columbia and becaome one of the most prominent Canadian Barristers.

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John Artis quickly found trouble after being released from jail in 1985. In April 1986, he was arrested along with 11 other people in a drug sweep in Passaic County. On June 1st, 1987, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and to receiving a stolen handgun, in exchange for dismissal of two other drug counts. He was sentenced to six years in prison on drug and weapons charges. Artis said that he started using cocaine after reading in a medical journal that the drug could help slow the spread of Buerger’s disease, a genetic and incurable circulatory illness that has resulted in the amputation of parts of five toes and two fingers.

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Lisa Peters, Sam Chaiton, and Terry Swinton returned to their Canadian commune after the case. Chaiton described the commune as a “group of friends from University days, and in business together, going back to 1979”. Other sources, including from former members, described the commune as very insular and having an “us-against-the-world” mentality build on the distrust of the outside world. In Carter’s own words, “When you live in that house, you do not talk to anybody outside that house, and once you’ve left that house you no longer talk to anybody in that house.”

With Carter’s help, Chaiton and Swinton published Lazarus and the Hurricane in 1991, on which the movie was based (Lazarus is the bibilical name for Lesra).

Lisa Peters, who goes by her married name Lisa Carter, has been described as a “petty tyrant.” Debra Unger, who played Lisa in the movie, had this to say: “Lisa, in real life, was balanced by the other women who were in the household. She is a very forward, forthright, powerful and sometimes overwhelming character, as well as a very compassionate and lovely woman.”

According to multiple articles, the group started a hat business called “Big It Up” back in 1996, but it’s uncertain if they are still involved in the company today.

Selwyn Raab was not featured in the movie, but the journalist and former investigative reporter for The New York Times wrote extensively about Carter’s case. His investigations and reports exposed perjury and police misconduct, which were instrumental in the release of Carter and Artis.

Raab was looped into Carter’s case by Richard Solomon, who in 1969, was a young filmmaker that wanted to make a documentary about Carter’s life. Solomon needed a respected journalist that would research the case, and Raab was that person. Raab had built a reputation reporting on the murder of two women in Manhattan ten years earlier, which led to the movie and TV series Kojak.

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