The true story of the 1839 revolt on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad
would appear to make strong material for a film, and the brilliant opening
scene of Steven Spielberg's Amistad proves that point. Depicting in
graphic, unflinching detail how the imprisoned Africans, led by one Cinque
(Djimon Hounsou), fought against their captors and took command the ship,
the scene gets the film off to a bold, arresting start, delivering the
promise of a highly charged and powerful two-and-a-half-hours.
Alas, the promise remains just that, a promise, and the ultimately
disappointing Amistad loses its momentum once the action shifts from the
sea to New England, where the 44 Amistad Africans end up. Held under lock
and key once more, the Africans, charged with murder and piracy, become the
objects in a heated property trial, and the film settles into the familiar
rhythm of a courtroom drama. The prepubescent Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin)
of Spain argues that the Africans are rightfully hers, claiming that the
passengers were Cuban-born slaves; the British Navy lay a counter claim
since, as they maintain, the passengers were not slaves but free people
illegally captured from West Africa. Looking out for the Africans'
interests are abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis
Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard), as well as Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey),
a young attorney with a struggling practice.
If McConaughey's role sounds familiar, it should--he is playing no more
than a variation on his starmaking role in A Time to Kill, which just adds
to the routine quality of the courtroom scenes, which are the meat and
potatoes of the film. As well-acted as these scenes are, especially by
Pete Postlethwaite as the prosecutor, none of them really engaged me. The
proceedings are strangely devoid of any tension or suspense, except for one
moment where the overwhelming pressure Cinque feels is reflected by a
pulsating drumbeat. But that is squandered, for the scene climaxes with
Cinque making a dramatic outburst that can best be described as a perfect
example of the cloying sentimentality that often mars Spielberg films.
Spielberg managed to control his inclination toward emotional bombast in
Schindler's List, and the film was much more effective for it; a similar
understatement would have worked better for Amistad, whose most powerful
moments are the quieter ones, such as a modest yet moving scene where
Cinque and his friend Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) attempt to interpret the Bible.
Eventually the Amistad Africans' case makes it to the Supreme Court, with
none other than former President John Quincy Adams (Sir Anthony Hopkins)
arguing on their behalf. The usually great Hopkins delivers one of his
weakest performances; he lays on the cantankerous old codger schtick a bit
too thick, and he does something peculiar with his voice--not his American
accent (which I, for one, did not mind at all in Nixon), but he makes it
kind of high pitched and lispy, at times almost squeaky and chirpy.
Needless to say, this is highly distracting and, in the end, annoying,
especially since his character handles the climactic oratory.
But by this late juncture in the film, the problem with Hopkins's
elocution is the least of the film's troubles. I felt as if the real
story--that of the Africans--had been lost. Baldwin's case hinges on the
fact that the Amistad Africans are people, not property, yet, with the
exception of Cinque and maybe (to a much lesser extent) Yamba, screenwriter
David Franzoni never develops them as people. Granted, it would have been
impossible to delve into the identities of all 44. But if Franzoni had
applied to the Africans some of the effort he uses to make the Americans a
varied bunch, the film would have been given a deeper human dimension.
But even with the underdeveloped African perspective, the scenes that
squarely focus on them are more compelling than any of the legal action
with the Yanks. The closest Amistad comes to recapturing the opening
scene's power is an extended flashback where Cinque recounts the events
leading up to the revolt. This sequence, which opens with the violent
capture in Sierra Leone, progresses through the harrowing sail to and from
Cuba, and then concludes with a brief recap of the revolt, gets under the
skin and stays there, which is a lot more than can be said for all of the
courtroom scenes, which barely have a single memorable moment between them.
The same can be said about the cast of characters, despite the very worthy
efforts of the actors, which is by far Amistad's strongest asset. The
always-reliable Freeman's presence is always welcome, but his character is
a minor background player at best. McConaughey predictably plays his
familiar role with ease, but the character of Roger Baldwin never exhibits
much personality. Nigel Hawthorne's President Martin Van Buren _does_ have
personality, but his screen time, much like Freeman's, is limited. The
only character, American or African, that comes to full-blooded, vivid life
is Cinque, played with mesmerizing ferocity by the charismatic Hounsou, a
remarkable find who has come a very long way indeed from his heretofore
most visible work, lipsynching in Janet Jackson's 1990 "Love Will Never Do
(Without You)" video.
As I have stated, the true story of the Amistad Africans would make a
great film. But not only do I not think Amistad is that film, I do not
think it really is a film about them. A true Amistad movie should be an
inspiring, highly emotional and moving tale about the courage and will of
the Africans themselves--not the mildly affecting, American-centered
courtroom drama that Spielberg has made.