From the DVD Shelf: Amistad (1997)
In an attempt to recapture the magic of 1993 (in which he released two films in a single year, the dramatic historical film Schindler’s List as well as the crowd-pleasing action spectacle Jurassic Park), in 1997 Mr. Spielberg released both the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World as well as the historical epic Amistad.
In 1839 a group of African slaves broke free aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad and killed most of the crew. When they were intercepted by an American naval vessel, the slaves were imprisoned and brought to trial. A group of abolitionists became aware of the case, and hired a young, inexperienced lawyer named Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to take the case. Mr. Baldwin was forced to retry the case multiple times, as the politics of a nation heading towards Civil War bestowed upon this small case an enormous weight in the potential fate of the nation. Ultimately, the case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) assisted Mr. Baldwin in arguing for the release of the Amistad slaves.
As is often the case, Mr. Spielberg assembled a talented group of actors to embody the characters in the film. Mr. McConaughey does a fine job as the jovial, slightly naive lawyer Baldwin. The role doesn’t feel like much of a stretch for him (particularly after playing a lawyer the year before as the lead in 1996’s A Time to Kill), but he reins in some of his more over-the-top mannersisms which allows him to fit well into this historical drama. Fresh off of The Lost Word, Pete Postlewaite pops up again as an equally unlikable fellow — this time, he’s the lawyer assigned to prosecute the Amistad case. Stellan Skarsgard and Morgan Freeman play the abolitionists who are drawn to help the Amistad slaves. Though neither has much to do in the film, both make the most of their small parts. Other familiar, talented members of the cast include Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin van Buren, David Paymer (The Larry Sanders Show, State and Main) as Secretary Forsythe, Xander Berkeley (24) as the presidential advisor Hammond, Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) as Queen Isabella, and I was pleasantly surprised that I had forgotten that Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Spartan) has a fairly substantial role as the translator who assists Mr. Baldwin in communicating with the Amistad slaves.
But the two standouts of Amistad are Djimon Hounsou as Cinque, the young man who who leads the Amistad revolt and as such becomes the de facto leader of the group of Africans, and Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams. Mr. Hounsou is terrific as Cinque, thrust into a role that he wants nothing to do with. Mr. Hounsou speaks almost no English dialogue in the film, and yet there is no barrier to one’s complete investment in his performance. He is intense — both dangerous and charismatic at the same time. It’s a difficult role, as Mr. Hounsou must both function as the main audience surrogate character for the whole group of Amistad slaves — the audience invests in their plight through an investment in him — while also trying to create a real, human character that isn’t just a one-note caricature. He walks that tight-rope well.
Then there’s Mr. Hopkins as former President John Quincy Adams. Under a ton of make-up, Mr. Hopkins creates a wonderfully idiosyncratic portrayal of this fascinating individual. In his first scene (in which he meets with Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard’s abolitionists outside the White House), I worried that Mr. Hopkins was playing the cranky old man mannerisms a bit too heavily, but those concerns dissipated as the film progressed. The climax of the film is Mr. Adams’ lengthy monologue before the supreme court. It’s a magnificently written speech (I don’t know how accurate it is to the speech that Mr. Adams actually delivered), and Mr. Hopkins’ performance is devastatingly powerful. That scene is, for me, the main reason to recommend watching Amistad. It was the sequence I remembered best from the film from when I saw it in 1997, and it was the sequence that I liked best when re-watching it in 2010.
I know that some have criticized Amistad as another in the tired genre of “white person helps black people” movies, and that’s certainly a valid criticism. The only counterpoint I could make is that the Amistad trials represent a real, historical event — and I do think it’s a story worth remembering, even though it involves the Africans needing the help of white men in order to succeed in their quest for freedom.
My biggest criticism of Amistad is that I think the movie is wildly uneven in tone. For the most part, Amistad is a deadly serious story. The opening sequence of the slaves’ revolt on the ship — presented with no dialogue, just stark imagery — is taught, violent, powerful filmmaking. (It heralds the incredible opening to the following year’s Saving Private Ryan.) This is an extraordinary sequence, and it immediately hooks the viewer into the life-and-death struggle being undertaken. In many of his films (such as the Indiana Jones films, or Jurassic Park), Mr. Spielberg was able to inject humor into the story in an organic way, without sacrificing any of the drama. But in Amistad, I found the “humerous” asides that would pop up every now and then to be awkward and out of place. As an example, with Cinque and his fellow Africans facing death, I just wasn’t interested in a goofy sequence of him passing messages back and forth to President Adams through his translator. Those moments interrupted the flow of the story — pulling me, as a viewer, out of the film, and preventing me from treating the film with the seriousness which I think the story deserved.
Amistad is an interesting film — in many ways it feels to me like a stepping stone for Mr. Spielberg as a filmmaker to the far-more successful Saving Private Ryan. And yet it’s not a film I can just dismiss as a failure either. There’s a lot to enjoy. It’s a solid B-Plus effort, of a piece with Mr. Spielberg’s good-but-not-great dramatic films from the mid-’80s, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. (Click here for my thoughts on The Color Purple, and here for my thoughts on Empire of the Sun.) Amistad doesn’t rank amongst the best of Mr. Spielberg’s filmography, but even a mediocre film by Mr. Spielberg has a lot of merit.
Next up is the film that, until I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I had considered to be Mr. Spielberg’s worst movie: A.I.: Artifical Intelligence. I really hated it when I saw it in 2001 — will I think any differently nine years later? I’ll let you know next week!