“What kind of a place is this where you almost mean what you say? Where laws almost work? How can you live like that?”
“The natural state of mankind is, and I know this is a controversial idea, is freedom. Is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man, woman or child will go to regain it once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try, against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.”
“Give us free.”
My recollection is that I only saw “Amistad” once and the film was one of the few in Steven Spielberg’s film cannon that I did not watch in a movie theater (at least after becoming a teenager). Have no idea why I didn’t see it on the big screen.
“Amistad” is another film within Spielberg’s human rights movies of the 1990s (interspersed with dinosaur films) following “Schindler’s List” (hard to top that one) and preceding “Saving Private Ryan” (another brilliant movie but more on that later). The historic picture represents an American era that when I first saw the movie, I knew little about. In spite what activists may say, I went to public school from kindergarten through high school and never learned about what happened on the Amistad or about Nat Turner or other major personalities who suffered under the cruel system of chattel slavery in the USA. Sure, we heard about the monumental historic figure, Frederick Douglass, and the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe but there wasn’t a real in depth study into America’s original sin including the slave trade.
Spielberg’s historic epic captures the uprising on the La Amistad in 1839, an event that was said to really galvanize the abolitionist movement. This is also Spielberg’s angriest film thus far, a passionate righteous fury that is captured in the early moments on the face of Cinque (Academy Award Nominee Djimon Hounsou) as he plunges a sword into the stomach of a slave trader onboard the boat after escaping his chains. The close up of his face, and specifically his eyes in the midst of the act, revealing an understandable righteous rage. The slaves kill the Spanish sailors on the boat sparing two navigators so they can attempt to travel back to Africa.
After landing in America accidently (the boat was coming from Cuba), the slaves find themselves captured and put on trial for the murder of the slave traders on the boat. Enter a miscast Matthew McConaughey as Roger Baldwin who will be the defense attorney for the African slaves. United States Attorney William Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite) is prosecuting the case while the Secretary of State at the time, John Forsyth (David Paymer), is representing the claims of Queen Isabella II of Spain that the slaves are her property based upon a treaty. All of this against the backdrop of the re-election campaign of the 8th president of the United States, Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne).
Surprisingly, the legal proceedings really bog this movie down. If someone is an attorney or fascinated with the law itself, they may find interest in the way Baldwin presents his case. He defends the Africans based on property law that they are free citizens as they were kidnapped in Africa and therefore, not the property of Spain. Baldwin doesn’t see his clients as human beings at first and grows to the revelation of their humanity but the movie really fails with this character arc. The abolitionist who gets Baldwin to take the case is Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and he is completely wasted in this film. How do you waste the great Freeman?
The courtroom antics distort the vital theme of this film. Cinque (and Hounsou playing him) is really the heart. His scenes are infused with a passionate power and it is unfortunate the movie ventures to the legal ramblings of the powdered wigs rather than focusing more on the Africans that rose up on the Amistad.
Not to say that Amistad is bad at all. It is simply not Spielberg’s best work. There are unforgettable scenes: the masterful Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams giving an 11 minute courtroom monologue in defense of the Africans, horrible flashback sequences of torture and murder of the Africans at the hands of the Spaniards aboard the Amistad, the Africans being inspired in prison by reading the Bible and seeing pictures of Jesus as they find a commonality with His suffering and the overall focus on a lesser known aspect of American history. Amistad feels like a film one needs to see and become mildly frustrated at how much better the movie could have been with some changes.
Lester Lauding Level: 3.5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Schindler’s List (Review here)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Review here)
Jaws (Review here)
Jurassic Park (Review here)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (Review here)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Review here)
Empire of the Sun (Review here)
The Color Purple (Review here)
Duel (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Review here)
Hook (Review here)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Review here)
The Sugarland Express (Review here)
Always (Review here)
1941 (Review here)