In 1839, 53 Africans, held under horrific conditions on the Spanish slave
ship La Amistad, broke free and killed most of the crew. They tried to
force two survivors to take them home, but the ship was captured and the
Africans found themselves in America, imprisoned again and embroiled in a
massive legal battle, with ramifications far beyond their particular case.
The story of these Africans is important and needed to be told. It's a
shame Steven Spielberg does such a poor job telling it.
"Amistad" is a maddening film because it comes so close to greatness. To
be sure, there are magnificent scenes, particularly the opening of the
movie, depicting the revolt on the ship. The segment is dark, brutal and
thrilling, mesmerizing because it taps into the fundamental nature of the
human condition, that desperate need for life and freedom. Unfortunately,
for most of the movie Spielberg inexplicably takes an academic approach
to slavery, reducing the Africans to noble props in a series of extremely
tired courtroom scenes. Instead of looking into the personalities of the
Africans and the psychology of slavery, we watch stuffy white guys in
silly outfits debating the legal minutiae of the issue.
Matthew McConaughey plays the lawyer for the Africans. In granny glasses
and curls, he looks like a frat boy in a college play, and his unfocused
performance adds little to the movie. Morgan Freeman fares better as a
former slave turned abolitionist, but he isn't given much to do. Anthony
Hopkins, however, gets loads of screen time as former President John
Quincy Adams, reluctantly drawn into the case. Hopkins gives a bizarre
performance, shuffling about while alternating between mumbling and
bellowing at those around him. In early scenes, he appears to be quite
senile, but later in the film, he miraculously recovers enough to give a
long, ponderous speech to the Supreme Court.
The only African we get to know is Cinque, beautifully played by Djimon
Hounsou. The actor is remarkably expressive, creating the only fully-
realized African character. Cinque is a leader who believes himself
unworthy to lead. His doubts, confusion, defiance and bravery give us the
human connection the film so desperately needs.
In the magnificent "Schindler's List," Spielberg showed uncharacteristic
restraint, allowing the audience to react to the story naturally. Here,
he reverts to the emotional manipulation he used in films like "E.T.,"
with John William's overbearing musical score constantly telegraphing
what Spielberg expects us to feel. Every moment of the film is
choreographed in glossy Hollywood fashion. Even a scene depicting the
Africans' nightmarish life on the slave ship, an extremely powerful
segment, loses some of its impact because Spielberg can't resist
orchestrating every second, using oh-so-perfect lighting and "emaciated"
Africans with bodies straight out of Gold's Gym.
"Amistad's" best moments are the quiet ones. A scene where a captive
African interprets the story of Jesus based on illustrations from a Bible
is gently moving. A dinner conversation where President Martin Van Buren
(Nigel Hawthorne) receives thinly-veiled threats about a brewing civil
war sends chills up the spine. Scenes like those hint at what a great
film "Amistad" could have been.
If only Spielberg had realized that bombast is no substitute for good
storytelling. The historical account of the human beings taken captive on
La Amistad is important, but we barely get to see it here. Instead, we
get two and one half hours of Spielberg's bells and whistles, with
lawyers pontificating while the Africans are left in the sidelines.
"Amistad" has some great moments, but great moments just aren't enough
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott