by George Hooker
Steven Spielberg has grown up.
The man who filled the childhood theater of my memory with lovable space creatures and swashbuckling archeologists not to mention a downright terrifying shark has put away childish things, let us hope only awhile, and embarked on a historical quest of sorts.
Perhaps Spielberg finally wants to be seen by his peers as a serious author, as his last few films have been marvelous additions to American cinema.
Spielberg opened old wounds and brought some closure to the Jewish Holocaust in Schindler's List, a tale of German businessman, Oscar Schindler's effort to salvage some of the horror by employing Jews out of the concentration camps to save their lives.
With Saving Private Ryan, arguably one of the most powerful and realistic portrayals of the last "good" war, Spielberg gave a type of tribute to our grandfathers who fought the Axis that had previously been reserved for the visceral films about Vietnam.
Wedged between those two epics, Spielberg created a smallish film in scale and scope that would again attempt to open old wounds concerning the plight of the Africans during the slave trade era of the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
It is the story of the Spanish slave ship Amistad that was overtaken by its African captors and fatefully run aground on the shores of the United States of America in 1839.
The movie stars Morgan Freeman as abolitionist and fictional character, Joadson; Matthew McConaughey as young lawyer Baldwin; Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, and newcomer Djimon Hounsou as Cinque, a leader of the mutiny. A cast of other familiars such as Nigel Hawthorne and David Paymer round out the players.
The film opens with a sequence orchestrated to show the incredible trials and suffering endured by the African captives. As the credits play in flashes of sporadic light and darkness, protagonist Cinque, a glistening opaque figure of muscularity and determination, bloodies his fingers slowly prying a nail from a clapboard panel that holds his chained body. This single act sets in motion the eventual mutiny that would put the slaves in control of the Amistad.
Cinque emerges from the hold and leads a charge of desperate unarmed men and women against their sword and pistol bearing captors. As more and more of the slaves fall upon the steel blades and in increasing numbers are cut down by musket fire, the tide begins to turn and the scene concludes with the graphic impaling of the ship's captain by an enraged and bellowing Cinque.
Now in control of the ship but with no knowledge of navigation, Cinque and company must rely on two of their Spanish prisoners to guide them back to Africa. Starving and cold, many of them sick, the slaves huddle together in the twilight. Looking to the stars, Cinque tries to follow the course. However, the Spaniards slowly maneuver the ship towards the Americas. Before the Africans realize what has happened, the Amistad is being boarded by an American corvette patrolling the waters off New England.
The rest of the film is a court drama concerned with the political ramifications of the determination of ownership. Spielberg attempts to address the incident as a precursor to the Civil War, with former President John Q. Adams verbally and politically dueling with incumbent Van Buren, but it doesn't quite hold true; historically, it didn't either. The Amistad event was more a defining of states' rights than a slave issue. Nonetheless, Spielberg has make a personal story of the plight of the African slaves. So personal in fact, that only Cinque is developed as character, leaving the other slaves as a seething mass in the background. It isn't quite universal but it has its moments.
When Cinque cries out in broken English during the hearing, the heartstrings are tugged a bit. When Adams delivers the final speech to the Supreme Court, patriotic chords are struck. However, Spielberg doesn't quite finish what he has started. The film is good but not great.
Visually, the film is stunning. The stark contrasts and deep shadows are pure Spielberg. Actually, they are pure recent Spielberg. His work in black and while with Schindler's List taught him a thing or two about the importance of tone.
There are many other moments where Spielberg deliberately uses imagery to highlight the many facets of the story. He contrasts the indigent living conditions of the slaves with the opulence of American and European society. A brilliant sequence has one of the slaves interpreting the basis of Christianity from the illustrations in a Bible while a judge prays in a church. The journey of Cinque from his capture in Africa to his arrival on the Amistad is downright brutal with graphic depiction of the dehumanizing treatment at the hands of his captors. As Cinque is marched in chains down the streets of New Haven to the courthouse, he spies three ship masts, an image that recalls an illustration of the death of Christ.
Spielberg's long time cinematographer, Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski, again lays out a palette of strong visual interest. Kaminski is the man responsible for the grainy, stark look of Saving Private Ryan and the epic vistas of Spielberg's oft overlooked WW II drama, Empire of the Sun .
Considered one of the best in his field, Kaminski devised a unique look for the slave ship drama. Again, in the opening sequences and in the others where the slaves are the focus of the moment, Kaminski employs harsh shadows and deep streaking cuts of light to silhouette the dark skin of the Africans, especially Cinque, dark as midnight with piercing eyes, who is masterfully lit throughout the picture.
The costuming is historically accurate for the most part and post-colonial America appears believable though it isn't greatly focused upon since much of the film is set inside the courtroom. Still, the illusion is fairly complete as historically rich characters such as David Paymer's Secretary of State John Forsyth, and Nigel Hawthorne's slightly inept Van Buren are enacted against the backdrop of such locations as Newport, New Jersey, and Essex, Connecticut.
David Franzoni's script is often eloquent and enriching. The actors respond as if they are proud to be part of it, especially Hopkins who physically alters his appearance to take on the burden of crusty old campaigner, John Adams, soured by experience. Anyone who doubts his talent and thinks The Silence of the Lambs was a fluke should see this film and marvel at the work he puts into a role. He doesn't have mannerisms like other actors. He has a look of sadness in his eye and a level of concentration that appears effortless. The speech he gives before the Supreme Court is both understated and overpowering, as well as overlong. It is an obvious plot by the writer and Spielberg to evoke patriotic emotions and to sum up Adams as a man and a former president. It is forgivable. After all, moviegoers sometimes want a little melodrama. They want to see things that are rarely found in the real world, and speeches like this one are few and far between at the local rotary club luncheon.
The acting at times is first rate, at times average. Morgan Freeman is sadly underused and Matt McConaughey, who played a southern lawyer in John Grisham's contemporary courtroom drama, A Time To Kill, plays another lawyer with ease.
The most powerful scenes almost always involve the slaves. The memories of Cinque visualized in flashback during the court scenes are horrific and saddening. The fear in the eyes of doomed slaves that are deemed unsaleable due to sickness or weakness is palpable as they are chained to one another and sent over the side of the ship weighted to heavy stones. When they sink and the life leaves their bodies, as a viewer, it is tough to breathe for a moment.
The standout here is Cinque. Djimon Hounsou infuses the character with equal parts animalistic rage and quiet intelligent nobility. He seems to be a normal man thrust into incredible circumstances, away from home and family. Emerging as a natural leader among the captive Africans, his struggle to understand his surroundings during the trial and his attempts to take hold of his own fate are cinematic gems. Cinque merely wants to go home. As a footnote, in the end, it is sadly discovered that in the vicious cycle of tribal war and slave trading, Cinque's family has been captured or essentially destroyed by the time he returns to Africa.
The score is by longtime Spielberg collaborator, John Williams. Famous for the easily recognizable musical phrasing of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, and Jaws to name only a few; Williams pulls out all the stops here, leaving hardly a quiet moment. Sometimes, this works well, other times it seems distracting and not overly original. However, like a comfortable pair of shoes, Spielberg and Williams are a well-worn match that is comfortable to the ears.
Amistad tells a compelling story and at times it tells it very well. Spielberg is an enormously skilled filmmaker with an eye for emotion 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 kind of potency that renders it a viable historical document.
The fascinating thing about Spielberg's treatment of the slave issue is that the viewer identifies much more with the Africans than with the Americans and Spaniards. While the mostly white characters are early 19th century abstractions, interesting but not fleshed out, the audience lives in the raw emotion of the Africans' enslavement and develops an emotional bond with them. Spielberg cleverly reinforces this by being selective in the use of subtitles. Some scenes in Spanish and the African language Mende go untitled when the director wants us to focus on actions rather than words, or when he is stressing one perspective over another. In an inspired move, the Africans speak throughout in Mende and the subtitled translations are often regional and colloquial. For Spielberg this eliminates the need for the Africans to take the time or be given the opportunity to learn English. But it also forces us to acknowledge the slaves as people not property, no less intelligent though they see things from a different perspective.
Certainly not as overwhelming as Schindler's List or Private Ryan, Amistad is nonetheless worthy of placement alongside those films as an example of how movies can capture history.