Amistad (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Here's a word analogy: Amistad is to The Lost World as Schindler's List is to Jurassic Park. In 1993, after Steven Spielberg made the monster dino hit, many critics described Schindler's List as the director's "penance" (as if there was a need for him to apologize for making a crowd-pleasing blockbuster). Now, after a three-year layoff, Spielberg is back with a vengeance. Once again, his summer release was special effects-loaded action/adventure flick with dinosaurs munching on human appetizers. Now, following his 1993 pattern, he has fashioned another serious, inspirational Christmas release about the nature of humanity. That film is Amistad.

Although not as masterful as Schindler's List, Amistad is nevertheless a gripping motion picture. Thematically rich, impeccably crafted, and intellectually stimulating, the only area where this movie falls a little short is in its emotional impact. Watching Schindler's List was a powerful, almost spiritual, experience. Spielberg pulled us into the narrative, absorbed us in the drama, then finally let us go, exhausted and shattered, three-plus hours later. Aspects of the movie have stayed with me ever since. Amistad, while a fine example of film making, is not as transcendent.

The incident of the ship La Amistad is not found in any history books, but, considering who writes the texts, that's not a surprise. However, the event is a part of the American social and legal fabric, and, while Amistad does not adhere rigorously to the actual account, most of the basic facts are in order. Several, mostly minor changes have been made to enhance the film's dramatic force. On the whole, while Amistad may not be faithful to all of the details of the situation, it is true to the spirit and meaning of what transpired.

One stormy night during the summer of 1839, the 53 men imprisoned on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad escape. Led by the lion-hearted Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), they take control of the vessel, killing most of the crew. Adrift somewhere off the coast of Cuba and uncertain how to make their way back to Africa, they rely on the two surviving Spaniards to navigate the eastward journey. They are tricked, however, and the La Amistad, which makes its way northward off the United States' eastern coastline, is eventually captured by an American naval ship near Connecticut. The kidnapped Africans are shackled and thrown into prison, charged with murder and piracy.

The first men to come to the Africans' defense are abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard). They are soon joined by Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), a property attorney of little repute. Aided by advice from former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), Baldwin proves a more persuasive orator than anyone gave him credit for, and his central argument -- that the prisoners were illegally kidnapped free men, not property -- convinces the judge. But powerful forces have aligned against Baldwin's cause. Current President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), eager to please Southern voters and 11-year old Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin), begins pulling strings behind-the-scenes to ensure that none of the Africans goes free.

At its heart, Amistad is a tale of human courage. Cinque is a heroic figure whose spirit remains unbreakable regardless of the pain and indignity he is subjected to. He is a free man, not a slave, and, while he recognizes that he may die as a result of his struggle, he will not give it up. Effectively portrayed by newcomer Djimon Hounsou, whose passion and screen presence arrest our attention, Cinque is the key to viewers seeing the Amistad Africans as more than symbols in a battle of ideologies. They are individuals, and our ability to make that distinction is crucial to the movie's success. To amplify this point, Spielberg presents many scenes from the Africans' point-of-view, detailing their occasionally-humorous observations about some of the white man's seemingly-strange "rituals".

The larger struggle is, of course, one of defining humanity. As the Nazis felt justified in slaughtering Jews because they viewed their victims as "sub-human," so the pro-slavery forces of Amistad use a similar defense. The abolitionists regard the Africans as men, but the slavers and their supporters see them as animals or property. In a sense, the morality of slavery is on trial here with the specter of civil war, which would break out less than three decades later, looming over everything.

Amistad's presentation of the legal and political intricacies surrounding the trial are fascinating, making this movie one of the most engrossing courtroom dramas in recent history. Four claimants come forward against the Africans: the state, which wants them tried for murder; the Queen of Spain, who wants them handed over to her under the provision of an American/Spanish treaty; two American naval officers, who claim the right of high seas salvage; and the two surviving Spaniards from La Amistad, who demand that their property be returned to them. Baldwin must counter all of these claims, while facing a challenge to his own preconceived notions as the result of a relationship he develops with Cinque. Even though attorney and client are divided by a language barrier, they gradually learn to communicate.

Aside from Cinque, who is a fully-realized individual, characterization is spotty, but the acting is top-notch. Matthew McConaughey successfully overcomes his "pretty boy" image to become Baldwin, but the lawyer is never particularly well-defined outside of his role in the La Amistad case. Likewise, while Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard are effective as Joadson and Tappan, they are never anything more than "abolitionists." Nigel Hawthorne, who played the title character in The Madness of King George, presents Martin Van Buren as a spineless sycophant to whom justice means far less than winning an election. Finally, there's Anthony Hopkins, whose towering portrayal of John Quincy Adams is as compelling as anything the great actor has recently done. Hopkins, who can convincingly play such diverse figures as a serial killer, an emotionally-crippled English butler, and Richard Nixon, makes us believe that he is Adams. His ten-minute speech about freedom and human values is unforgettable.

One point of difference worth noting between Amistad and Schindler's List is this film's lack of a well-defined human villain. Schindler's List had Ralph Fiennes' superbly-realized Amon Goeth, who was not only a three-dimensional character, but a personification of all that the Nazis stood for. There is no such figure in Amistad. The villain is slavery, but an ideology, no matter how evil, is rarely the best adversary. It is to Spielberg's credit that he has fashioned such a compelling motion picture without a prominent antagonist.

Amistad's trek to the screen, which encountered some choppy waters (author Barbara Chase-Riboud has cried plagiarism, a charge denied by the film makers), comes in the midst of an upsurge of interest in the incident. An opera of the same name opened in Chicago on November 29, 1997. Numerous books about the subject are showing up on bookstore shelves. It remains to be seen how much longevity the Amistad phenomena has, but one thing is certain -- with Spielberg's rousing, substantive film leading the way, the spotlight has now illuminated this chapter of American history.

Amistad (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:37
U.S. Release Date: 1997-12-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1