Article By: Dan Clark
Based on his filmography it is easy to see that Steven Spielberg does not shy away from difficult subject matter. By this point in his career he had already dealt with race relations, enemy occupation, and the horrors of the Holocaust. Similar to Schindler’s List, Amistad is a story that focuses on the struggle for righteousness among an atmosphere of misfortune. It encapsulates the power of our fundamental rights, and the dreadful actions that can occur when common decency is removed. Unlike with Schindler’s List however, Spielberg is unable to get out of his own way at times. His incessant need to over dramatize the superficiality of the story weakens the overall impact. What you are left with is still a riveting tale of will and sacrifice–one wonders if a tad more discipline would have allowed Amistad to reach legendary status similar to Spielberg’s greatest films.
Amistad is based on the true story of the 1839 mutiny of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad and the aftermath that followed. The film opens as the African slaves break free from their chains and take control of the ship—killing all but two of the Spanish crew. It intensely depicts this bloody uprising in all its ruthless grandeur. Djimon Hounsou plays Cinqué, the man who began the revolt. In a cast staked with high caliber talent Hounsou gives what is easily the most powerful performance—a performance that required him to speak completely in Mende. We understand his internal strife not through words—but though his inflection, body language, and sheer presence. His frustration and anger seep out of him like a festering open wound. Simply through his facial expressions you can tell this is man of utter determination.
When the would-be slaves take over the ship they leave two crew members alive so they can steer the ship back to Africa. They are tricked however, and actually navigate the ship towards America. The Africans are imprisoned as runaway slaves and are doomed to be put on trial for the murder of the crew members. Their case becomes a nationwide sensation, gaining the attention of two of the leading abolitionists, Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Mr. Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård). Knowing the importance of this case they hope to enlist the help of former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). Adams declines their request, and Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), a young property lawyer, seizes the opportunity and takes the case instead. They hope to prove the slaves are actually from Africa meaning they should be sent back to their home country as free men and women, because the African slave trade had already been outlawed.
McConaughey is not necessarily an actor people tend to associate with historical period pieces. For the most part he is serviceable in his role, though he never is fully able to dim his persona enough to authenticate his performance. He always feels like he is playing a part—never like he is living the role. The rest of the cast is full of amazing actors, but many of these high caliber stars are subjugated to bit parts. Morgan Freeman, whose character is actually a fictional creation, is forcefully put on display for obligatory reaction shots. Freeman indisputably does his best to make those moments work—just wish there was more to his character than a token prop piece.
One actor that certainly gets a lot of responsibility put on his shoulders is Anthony Hopkins. The case of the Amistad eventually makes it to the Supreme Court. Seeing a voice as strong as his needed Adams joins to case to argue on the behalf of the enslaved Africans. Hopkins portrays this passionate plea through an epic grand monologue. While the words have an eloquent ambiance, the effect leaves some to be desired. With Schindler’s List Spielberg removed many of the sentimental tropes he had previously relied on, with Amistad many of those tropes reemerge. Most of those moments are reserved for the courtroom scenes. Spielberg tries to compensate for their dryness by having instances of lavish passion. Cinqué shouting, “Give us Free”, with triumphant music playing in the background was a cheap way to evoke an emotional reaction from the audience. Even if the moment is completely based in reality, the execution reeked of Hollywood falsity.
Luckily those moments were not abundant enough to detract greatly from the overall film, and there were times where Spielberg was unrelenting with the vicious conditions of the La Amistad. Slavery can often be an abstract notion. It’s how to quantify just how horrible life must have been for those misbegotten souls. Amistad places you within that world so you can witness the disgusting actions that took place. Unforgettable imagery of torture and death is ingrained into the film’s framework. It transforms slavery from an unimaginable notion into a haunting nightmare. You too yearn for these people to gain their freedom. Some argue Amistad’s portrayal overly simplifies the situation. It distinctly labels who are the villains and who are the heroes. Some state it was not that black and white, nor was it a turning point in how the nation viewed slavery. Those arguments may proved to be valid, however it does succeed at depicting the idea of the Amistad. The idea that freedom is our most fundamental right and it should be held to the highest regard. How it displays that idea may be shaky at times, but overall it is a truly inspiring tale of overcoming insurmountable odds.