I cant wait to get my Amistad Happy Meal. Okay, so Steven Spielbergs
latest film probably doesnt have any fast-food tie-ins with little
mutineer Cinque action figures. In fact, Amistad, which recounts
an 1839 slave-ship mutiny and the passengers subsequent trial
for murder, is a perfectly respectable, technically sound movie.
But thats just it. In keeping Amistad skillfully crisp unlike
his 1993 Schindlers List, which left the audience a tear-stained
wreck Spielberg, while he manages to rattle, never really gets
to your gut.
This isnt to say that theres nothing to recommend about Amistad.
Far from it. The story it tells is an important one. It opens
with Cinque (in a magnetic performance by Djimon Hounsou) desperately
working a nail out of a board. When he frees it, he unlocks his
chains and he and the other captives take over the Spanish slave
ship La Amistad. Several weeks later, as they are trying to make
their way back to Africa, they are recaptured by the U.S. and
taken to an American prison. There, the question arises to whom
these Africans belong. Its a point that has several parties involved:
Young lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) joins abolitionist and former slave Theodore Joadson
(Morgan Freeman) to say these men and women were stolen and therefore
belong to no one; the 11-year-old queen of Spain (Anna Paquin)
claims they are hers, with President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne)
siding with her in order to appease the pro-slavery South in an
election year. The case goes on to the Supreme Court, where the
ancient John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) is dusted off and
brought in to argue for the Africans.
Spielberg was reportedly wary in taking on this project, having
been criticized for The Color Purple. Since convinced, he takes
the stand that slavery was bad, but only deals with it in the
abstract. The horrors he goes into are those which occurred during
La Amistads passage in a long, effective scene portraying starving
Africans, bloody whippings, and the random elimination of Africans
thrown overboard, weighted by rocks.
This scene serves to work the audience up, and is followed by
Cinque, now in a courtroom, standing up, shackled hands raised
to the sky, yelling, Give us free! Its inspirational to be
sure, and the audience responds by clapping. But its a false
climax, and when the real climax comes, the audience isnt so
ready to fall for it. Its here that the movie moves away from
Cinque and the others to put its focus more on the white man who
helps them (see movie feature p. 46). That white man is Adams,
played with lots of flair by Hopkins, who then goes on to save
the day. And its exactly here that the movie loses its momentum.
Cinque and the others are the most compelling part of Amistad.
Yet, many of the scenes are frustrating to watch because, for
some reason, some of the exchanges between the Africans are subtitled,
while others arent. Its ironic, then, that Adams tells Baldwin the key to winning his case is to get his clients stories,
while the audience is only given portions of what they say.
Amistad is a good movie, and will most surely be recognized come
Academy Awards time. But it seems that this was the purpose all
Full Length Reviews
Other Films by Steven Spielberg
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Saving Private Ryan
The Lost World
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