In 1967, an all-white jury convicts Rubin Hurricane Carter (Denzel Washington), an African-American boxer, and John Artis (Garland Whitt), a young fan, to three life terms in prison for a triple murder. In 1974, the prisoner's autobiography The Sixteenth Round is published drawing more attention to his case and his claim to innocence. After he is reconvicted in a second trial in 1976, Carter tells his wife (Debbi Morgan) that he wants her to divorce him and never visit again.

In prison, this rigorously disciplined African-American keeps to himself. He transcends the dehumanizing environment by practicing detachment, neither wanting nor needing anything. Then a letter comes from Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a bright black youth from Brooklyn who is being educated by three idealistic Canadians in their Toronto home. His guardians are Terry Swinton (John Hannah), Lisa Peters (Deborah Kara Unger), and Sam Chaiton (Liev Schreiber). The first book Lesra reads is Carter's autobiography. Convinced of his innocence and inspired by his willpower, the boy begins corresponding with the boxer. Having reached a low point in his life, Carter finds that his spirits are lifted by this relationship.

It is still hard for him to trust Lesra's white friends, however, since the real reason for his being in prison is the malevolence of Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), a cop who has framed him for the murders. When the Canadians and the boy move to Trenton to work full-time looking for new evidence to clear him, both the boxer and his lawyers are stunned. They warn them that other well-intentioned people (Bob Dylan wrote a passionate song about the Hurricane) have sought justice in the case but came to an impasse. The Canadians say they won't leave until Carter can go with them.

Norman Jewison directs this mesmerizing true story that has been adapted for the screen by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon. The word "hope" in Hebrew means "to twist around" like strands in a rope. In The Hurricane small incremental deeds of love and mercy all have a part to play in Carter's journey to freedom. The strands include the kindness of a prison guard who helps Carter protect his book manuscript so that his story can see the light of day; the initiative of a black boy who purchases the boxer's autobiography for 25 cents and then urges his friends to do something about the injustice he reads about; and the thoughtfulness of a woman who gives the youth 10 dollars to include in his first letter to Carter so he can buy stamps to continue the correspondence.

Eventually this rope of hope becomes a lifeline and Rubin Hurricane Carter is released from prison in 1985. In one of the most touching scenes in the film, Carter tells Lesra (whose name means Lazarus), "Hate put me in prison, love is gonna bust me out." And that's precisely what does it.