As the abolitionists kneel in prayer and song before the jail, the
African slaves imprisoned inside cannot figure out what to make of this
weird group. At first they think these strange people prostrating
before them are sick, but then they decide that they must be
entertainers. But why are the entertainers all so sad?
AMISTAD is Steven Spielberg's earnest movie based on a true story
of a group of Africans who in 1839 revolted and commandeered the slave
ship (La Amistad) upon which they were being transported. With the
film, Spielberg boldly comes out foursquare against slavery -- not a
very controversial or original idea.
Although Spielberg devises many powerful scenes for the movie, his
staging confuses more often than it enlightens. When the slaves speak,
for example, we frequently do not get English subtitles, but when their
captors speak in Spanish, we get their every word translated.
Told by a host of known actors, almost all white, the overly long
movie never takes the time to develop more than the one slave -- Joseph
Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) -- into a real character. The other slaves
make up a large faceless mass. With over two and a half hours of
movie, in which Spielberg devotes time to incidents as small as young
Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin) jumping up and down on her bed,
why we couldn't hear from more than one slave remains a mystery.
In ROSEWOOD, a much better film from earlier this year, we heard
from a wide variety of African-Americans, which made their plight real
and vivid. Why did Spielberg feel he needed to devote so much money
and screen time to a group of known actors (Anthony Hopkins, Matthew
McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, Stellan Skarsgard, Anna
Paquin, David Paymer and Arliss Howard among others) as the people
aiding the slaves and then create only a single decent part (Cinque)
for the slaves themselves? How effective would SHINDLER'S LIST have
been if only the Nazis and the Allies got parts, but the Jews were
relegated to a single character?
After the slaves revolt in AMISTAD, they are tricked into sailing
to America, thinking it is Africa. Once near the shore they were
captured by an American naval ship and taken in for trial.
The case itself has many intricacies, both in the number of
litigants and in the strategy of the slaves' defense attorney. Matthew
McConaughey plays Roger Baldwin, the slaves' tricky but effective
lawyer. Several groups sue for ownership of the slaves, but the script
never takes the time to explore the issues as effectively as it should.
Instead, we get a Cliff's Notes-style outline of the case plus a few
random scenes of the trials.
When Spielberg should be storytelling, too often we get theatrics
instead. Cinque, for example, bursts out in the middle of their trial
and starts speaking for the first time in English. "Give us free," he
shouts repeatedly, thereby bringing the trial to a complete standstill.
Rather than anyone trying to repress the outbursts of the prisoner,
everyone stares in awe at him as the music contains something
approaching the sounds of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir raising a loud
voice to heaven.
Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard play Joadson and Tappan, the
two abolitionists who hire Baldwin. Freeman gets little dialog and is
basically wasted in the movie. But then, most of the characters in the
film exist mainly in caricature. Tappan, for example, is the canonical
do-gooder who is perfectly willing to let others die for his cause.
"They may be of more value to our cause in death than in life," Tappan
explains to Baldwin.
Nigel Hawthorne repeats his Academy Award nominated role of George
III, except this time his character is addressed as President Martin
The best performance in the picture, and the only one with any
depth, is given by Anthony Hopkins as the semi-senile, ex-president
John Quincy Adams. Adams comes into the story mainly at the last as he
argues the slaves' case in front of the Supreme Court. "We've come to
understand that who we are is who we were," he orates in his moving and
complicated address to the court.
Even given the film's ponderous pacing, the slaves' story does
come out. We see extremely gory pictures of naked people being beaten
to death as their blood splatters everyone nearby, and we see naked
human beings chained together, attached to a weight and thrown to their
deaths in the ocean.
"Whoever tells the best story wins," is Adams's advice on how best
to conduct the trial. Spielberg should have listened. All in all,
AMISTAD is an excellent story, poorly told.
AMISTAD runs 2:37. It is rated R for gore, nudity and mature
themes, and would be fine for teenagers who can handle gruesome images.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes