Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Djimon Hounsou, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgard & Anna Paquin
Opened: Friday, December 12, 1997 | Rated: R
The first half-hour of "Amistad" makes brilliant use of silent film technique.
Steven Spielberg's historical abolitionist epic, about a slave ship revolt and it's political repercussions in 1830s America, has no English dialogue until one-fifth of the way through the film and only a few subtitles. But every thought, every action, every emotion is unmistakable as a few dozen kidnapped Africans break free of their chains and overrun the crew of a Spanish schooner taking them to the United States as slaves.
Fear, rage, confusion, and determination wash over these lost men as they attempt to pilot a foreign vessel back to Africa with the reluctant help of the two crewmen they left alive.
After two ragged months doing circles at sea, the ship, "La Amistad," is captured off the coast of Connecticut and the would-be slaves are put on trial for murdering the crew.
Spielberg's symbolic use of pounding rain and lighting, panicked breathing and sweaty close-ups bring these early scenes a raw, corporeal passion that leads into a fascinating, although heavy-handed, history lesson about the trial, historically swept under the carpet, that helped plant the seeds of the Civil War.
The story follows the case through two judges, several complex and touchy topics, and an appeal to the Supreme Court while lining up an impeccable cast on both sides of the courtroom.
Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard ("Breaking the Waves") are abolitionists fighting for the African's defense. Pete Postlethwaite, as lead prosecutor, and Nigel Hawthorne, as President Martin Van Buren stand with David Paymer and Anna Paquin (as Queen Isabella of Spain) to convict the men and put them to death.
The case is complicated by ownership claims made on the captured men by Spain, the La Amistad's surviving crew members and the Navy officers who seized the ship.
Matthew McConaughey, as a buckish young property lawyer, comes to the aid of the Africans with a simple, albeit distasteful, legal strategy. This is not a murder trial, he says, it is a property trial. If these men were born slaves, they were stolen by the Spanish. If they were not born slaves, they were acquired illegally from Africa.
"Amistad's" strongest moments come through the memories and emotions of the imprisoned Africans.
Djimon Hounsou, an African model-turned-actor who plays Cinque, the leader of the revolt, is remarkable in his portrayal of spirit and courage, honor and vulnerability, without speaking a word of English. His is the film's most effectual and important performance.
His entire existence is laid out before us in powerful scenes, from his memories of life in Africa and of slaves being thrown overboard the La Amistad to his dignity in the courtroom despite being at a loss to fully understand what is happening.
Also most noteworthy is Anthony Hopkins, playing ex-President John Quincy Adams, who presents the African's eloquent defense to the Supreme Court in a loquacious soliloquy on human rights. So immersed in the role is Hopkins, he is virtually unrecognizable. The consummate chameleon, this could lead to his second Oscar nomination for playing a president (the first being "Nixon").
"Amistad" suffers from a few blatant Spielberg-isms -- there's a shot of a newborn baby raised into a shaft of light above the writhing mass of chained humanity in the La Amistad's hold. The film was relentlessly over-scored by John Williams -- every frame is inundated with chorus music or french horns. And it isn't very subtle about pimping itself for an Oscar, either.
But "Amistad" tells a compelling story and it tells it well. Spielberg is a enormously skilled filmmaker with an eye for emotional purity and assertive visuals. His ability to transport his audience convincingly into the position of a slave through dark shots of swinging chains and inferior camera angles lends this film a potency that, along with stunning period accuracy, will render it an historical document.
Certainly not as overwhelming as "Schindler's List," his other true-life drama of epic racial suffering, "Amistad" is nonetheless worthy of placement along side that film as an example of how movies can capture history.