Memphis Flyer

DIRECTED BY: Steven Spielberg

REVIEWED: 12-22-97

I can’t wait to get my Amistad Happy Meal. Okay, so Steven Spielberg’s latest film probably doesn’t 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 that’s just it. In keeping Amistad skillfully crisp – unlike his 1993 Schindler’s List, which left the audience a tear-stained wreck – Spielberg, while he manages to rattle, never really gets to your gut.

This isn’t to say that there’s 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. It’s 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 Amistad’s 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!” It’s inspirational to be sure, and the audience responds by clapping. But it’s a false climax, and when the real climax comes, the audience isn’t so ready to fall for it. It’s 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 it’s 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 aren’t. It’s 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 along.

--Susan Ellis


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Other Films by Steven Spielberg
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Columbo (tv)
Saving Private Ryan
The Lost World

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