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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Amistad

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: R
RunTime: 142 Minutes
Release Date: December 1997
Genre: Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Some years ago it became fashionable in politically correct circles to denigrate some American heroes. Thus, Columbus did not deserve annual veneration for discovering us but rather defamation for prompting the wholesale slaughter of the people who discovered America long before. And what about Jefferson's relationship with a black slave and George Washington's ownership of same? Was Lincoln hypocritical in putting the union ahead of simple morality?

Just the other day we hear that some American high schools have changed their designation because their namesakes were tainted with ownership of vassals from Africa. Now, there is a Martin Van Buren High School in Queens, New York, that has had no thoughts of alterations. Not until now. According to a new, bold, in-your-face, epic movie directed by Steven Spielberg, President Van Buren was guilty of kowtowing to southern slaveholding interests. In this film, "Amistad," Van Buren attempts to fix a court case which, if decided as he wished, would condemn forty-four black men imprisoned in New Haven to execution in Cuba or Spain.

"Amistad," filmed largely in the area of Newport, Rhode Island with a design resembling the New Haven of the 1830s, deals with an actual incident that occurred during that period which strangely enough has not received any attention in high-school or college history texts. Any schoolchild can tell you about the Nat Turner revolt, but if the incidents depicted in this movie are truly based on actual occurrences, the Amistad affair would be significantly more important, striking, and alarming. Spielberg unfolds the tale of a Spanish ship ironically called Amistad (friendship) which is transporting newly-purchased slaves from Havana to their new homes. When Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), a charismatic, larger-than- life prisoner, manages to find the key to unlock the chains binding him and his fellows, the newly-freed prisoners mutiny and slaughter all whites aboard except for the two men who have bought them: these two buy time by promising to guide the ship back to Africa, but instead wander for two months up the American coast until it is captured by an American naval vessel off Connecticut. The forty-four men are imprisoned and held for trial on several counts of murder. The general belief is that if they are returned to Havana or sent to the Spain of Isabella II, they will be executed there.

The film is part courtroom scene, with segments devoted to incidents on two slave ships, one Spanish, the other Portuguese. While Spielberg's audience will be composed (hopefully) largely of kids in secondary schools and below, the director-producer does not shrink from displaying graphic violence. The opening shots are particularly riveting, as Cinque, breathing heavily and bleeding from all fingers, endeavors to pry loose the key to his chains. The massacre of the Spaniards is graphically presented down to the severe stabbing received by one hapless fellow at the hands of the involuntary cargo. In yet another grim vista, Portuguese slavetraders are shown chaining fifty prisoners to a sack of stones and throwing the human payload overboard to drown when provisions were running low. (We are told that this was the practice as well when the Europeans had to destroy evidence of their illegal sailing.)

At the trials of the black men both in Federal District Court in New Haven and before the U.S. Supreme Court, much is bandied about of the paramount desire of people for their freedom. As the press notes say, "Freedom cannot be given./ It is our right, at birth./ But there are moments in time/ when it must be taken." Yet the case turned not on epic moral issues like liberty but on a purely technical consideration. Were these men who are being shipped into involuntary servitude actually born in Cuba of parents who were themselves slaves, or were they taken forcibly from their homes in Africa? If the former, then they indeed were legally taken and could be returned to Cuba for execution. If, however, they were abducted as free men from Africa, those who transported them were engaging in illegal practices, as the trading of slaves was barred by both the English who had colonies in Africa and by the Americans, who maintained slavery in some states but prohibited their continued transoceanic exchanges. If the trade were carried out illegally, the treaty between the U.S. and Spain agreeing to return cargoes of property would not be relevant.

Much of this techno-legal information may be missed by an audience attending the film to grasp the conspicuous spectacle of the horrors of the slave trade. In fact, some background in history and politics would help quite a bit in deciphering the practical issues dealt with by Spielberg and his wonderful cast of characters. In much the way that film- makers use particular locations to simulate the look of a historical period, Spielberg has filled the screen with British performers, recognizing that the principal settlers in the America approaching the mid-century period were of Northern European stock. Thus Anthony Hopkins shucks his English accept for that of the New England speech of former president John Q. Adams and Nigel Hawthorne assumes the role of the incumbent president, Martin Van Buren, who is raked across the coals by Spielberg. Pete Postlethwaite casts off the goody-goody role he assumed in "Brassed Off" to take on the role of prosecutor who insists that the prisoners be returned to their Spanish owners.

Perhaps the most complex character of the movie is that of real estate attorney Roger Baldwin, played by Matthew McConaughey, who is featured with reading glasses suspended on the tip of his nose as a practical lawyer-turned idealist. Believing that his specialty has particular relevance since the case dealt with property, he undergoes a transformation into a visionary who sees his clients as real human beings with the same need for liberation as any white person would require. Spielberg, adapting a sharply-drawn script by David Franzoni, draws upon other subtleties as well, as when he contrasts two abolitionists. Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), a former slave who is prominent in the abolitionist cause, becomes infuriated when a fellow abolitionist, Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) suggests that the anti-slavery crusade might be strengthened if the black men were executed and thus turned into martyrs. Anna Paquin has fun with the role of the eleven-year-old monarch ruling over Spain, a pre-pubescent, amoral potentate who in one scene jumps gaily on her bed with a doll in her arms and in another writes spirited memos back to Secretary of State Forsyth insisting that the black men be returned to Spain.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski does a particularly fine job in contrasting the glitter of the White House during a state dinner with the muted colors of shipboard mayhem while Spielberg evokes particular poignancy with the problems that two groups can encounter when faced with a language gap. Significantly, much of the dialogue of the Mende people (who, not surprisingly speak Mende) goes untranslated, leaving the audience with the task of figuring out what is being communicated by Cinque and those of his tribe. Language differences do indeed put some people on Venus while others are on Mars.

While "Amistad" highlights true ensemble acting, Djimon Hounsou stands out as the ferocious, freedom-loving leader Cinque, whose glaring eyes and untamed body language do justice to what Anthony Hopkins insists--in his monologue before the Supreme Court--is man's greatest need: freedom. Hounsou, a native of Benin who moved to Paris, has turned out a career-making performance as the central figure of the movie, one which will educate the audience about slavery in much the way the "Schindler's List" schooled viewers about the horrors of the Holocaust. To say that "Amistad" should be required in every high-school social studies class is not to take away from its value as spectacular entertainment. "Amistad" is a picture you will not want to forego.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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