Amistad (1997): Spielberg’s Ambitious (if Inaccurate) Political Drama, Starring Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey

“Amistad,” Steven Spielberg’s second foray into African history is far more effective and moving than “The Color Purple,” his compromised, sanitized rendition of Alice Walker’s novel.  Thematically, the new film is a logical endeavor following “Schindler’s List,” though stylistically the two films could not have been more different.
Grade: B (*** 1/2* out of *****)
Amistad
Amistad (1997) poster.png

Theatrical release poster
Aiming to instruct as well as entertain–and often struggling to reconcile these divergent goals–“Amistad” lacks the subtlety of tone and the simplicity of form that made the 1993 Oscar-winning film so special in Spielberg’s oeuvre.
Placed against a crucial era in American history, the forces of power, racism and justice momentously clash in the epic drama “Amistad,” an honorably respectful, artistically solid, if not always dramatically exciting, chronicle of the 1839 rebellion on board the Spanish slave ship, “La Amistad.” The true story, which few Americans have even heard about, is presented as an international intrigue of the highest order, one that involved the governments of pre-Civil War U.S., Great Britain, Spain, and, of course, the 53 Africans held captive in the cramped cargo off the Cuban coast.

Boasting a high-voltage cast, led by Brit Anthony Hopkins and Nigel Hawthorne, American Morgan Freeman and Matthew McConaughey, and most impressively, West African Djimon Hounsou as the rebels’ leader, this DreamWorks release should sail safely with a message film that impinges on the very fabric of the American social system and whose humanist moral and resonant political implications should guarantee broad appeal across the board.

Rather consciously, the director strives a tad too hard for the universal elements of the 19th century case of injustice, using an over deliberate visual style that accentuates (and often inflates) every single idea and image. Spielberg’s skeptics will find ammunition to criticize Amistad as too solemnly earnest and too bombastic in its visual strategy.

In a powerful pre-credit sequence that evidences a conspicuously bold touch, Spielberg shows how the rebellion began by Sengbe Pieh (called by the Spaniards Cinque), when he breaks free of his shackles. This violent scene (partly responsible for pic’s R rating) depicts graphically with mega close-ups and rapid montage the impalement of an officer with a sword in his heart. From this point on, David Franzoni’s multi-faceted script relates the saga from the perspective of its central victim, a once free rice farmer who suddenly found himself a chained slave. With Cinque (Hounsou), the filmmakers provide the audience a most sympathetic figure–and an emotional hook–to absorb the sprawling drama as it hops from one continent to another.

After being caught and thrown into a New England prison, story switches to Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), a former slave who has joined forces with a businessman called Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) in the Abolitionist cause. When the Amistad incident breaks, the American press labels it “a massacre at sea,” but Joadson perceives the African as freedom fighters. Attempting to enlist a decent attorney, he nonetheless ends up with Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), a shady property lawyer nicknamed “Dung Scrapper.”

For Baldwin, the case represents a property, not human rights, issue. Indeed, in the trial, positioned against Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite), the nasty government prosecutor, Baldwin tries desperately to prove that the Africans were not legally slaves, that they were “stolen goods” because they were born in Africa and illegally kidnapped from their homes.

The drama becomes more intriguingly complex, when broader political forces are brought to the surface. Fearing the wrath of the South, incumbent president Martin Van Buren (Hawthorne), who’s running for re-election, overturns the lower court’s decision, which actually had favored the Africans. He and his secretary of state Forsyth (David Paymer) shamelessly pull strings behind the scenes and even appoint a new attorney. The case, now described in the press as “The Trial of the Presidents,” goes to the Supreme Court, where the Africans are defended by no other than John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), the former president and son of founding father John Adams.

Neither an abolitionist nor pro-slavery, Adams is a reluctant hero, an astute, incorruptible puritan, enamored of flowers and plants, who initially refused to help. A moralist at heart, he throws himself wholeheartedly into defending the Africans in a fervent speech that summons the Declaration of Independence and other basic tenets of the American Dream.

Looking at the case from a contemporary POV, the script contains some astutely cynical observations about politicians, as when one official says, “Is there anything more pathetic than an ex-President” a statement that refers to Adams, but will send timely vibrations to present-day viewers. All along there are jokes about Spain’s Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin), a pubescent still playing with dolls, who later continued to argue about the Amistad case with seven presidents.

Though there are a number of trials, Spielberg shrewdly avoids the routine format of courtroom drama, instead seamlessly integrating the numerous characters and their particular stands on the case. Yet every once in a while one senses an inner tension between Spielberg the mass entertainer, with his assured command of facile camera and trademark pyrotechnics, and the genuine artist, pressing for the simple core of the drama.

Occasionally, the film succumbs to the level of an anthropological survey, viewing the Africans and their rituals as exotic curiosity, though Hounsou’s dignified portrayal of Cinque as a man of outer strength and inner peace successfully counterbalances this weakness. Regrettably, the brilliant Freeman is totally wasted as Joadson, functioning as no more than a link among the various episodes, a possible result of the fact that his fictional character is a composite of several historical figures.

Cast against type, with shabby beard and big glasses to deglamorize his natural handsomeness, McConaughey renders a passable performance, failing to grab the opportunities of his substantial role. Playing an older man than his age, Hopkins shines throughout, and once he takes center stage he ignites the screen with a bravura 11-minute argument that results in freeing the slaves and crushing the notorious Lomboka Slave Fortress.

The large, inspired ensemble hits its marks with small but succinctly drawn roles, played by Hawthorne, as the pro-slavery president, Paymer as the cunning secretary of state, and Skarsgard as the decent abolitionist Tappan, and others.

Filmed in various locations in New England and Puerto Rico, technically “Amistad” is an aural and visual pleasure, due to John Williams’ emotional score, Janusz Kaminski’s vibrant lensing, Rick Carter’s accurate production design and Ruth Carter’s verified costumes, all contributing to an authentic experience, which is further enhanced by the Africans’ use of the Mende language.

Made on a moderate budget of $36 million, the movie was critically acclaimed but a box-office failure, generating only $44 million.

Oscar Context:

Amistad was nominated for Oscar Awards in four categories: Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Original Dramatic Score (John Williams), Best Cinematography (Janusz Kamiński), and Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter).

 

Cast:

Theodore Joadson…..Morgan Freeman
John Quincy Adams…Anthony Hopkins
Baldwin………Matthew McConaughey
Martin Van Buren….Nigel Hawthorne
Cinque……………Djimon Hounsou
Secretary Forsyth……David Paymer
Holabird………Pete Postlethwaite
Tappan…………Stellan Skarsgard
Queen Isabella……….Anna Paquin
Calderon……………Tomas Milian
Professor Gibbs….Austin Pendleton

Credits

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 152 minutes

A DreamWorks Pictures release in association with HBO Pictures.
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson.
Executive producers, Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald.
Co-producer, Tim Shriver.
Co-executive producer, Robert Cooper.
Directed by Spielberg.
Screenplay: David Franzoni.
Camera (Technicolor, widescreen): Janusz Kaminski.
Editor: Michael Kahn.
Music: John Williams.
Production design: Rick Carter.
Art direction: Chris Burian-Mohr, Jim Teegarden, Tony Fanning.
Set decoration: Rosemary Brandenburg.
Costume design: Ruth E. Carter.
Sound: Ronald Judkins, Robert Jackson.
Visual effects produced by Industrial Light & Magic.
Visual effects supervisor: Scott Farrar.
Associate producers: Bonnie Curtis, Paul Deason. Assistant director: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan. Casting: Victoria Thomas.