A Study in Spielberg: Amistad (1997)

18 Apr


I have found it nearly impossible to look at Amistad without thinking of Schindler’s List.  Both films are so intrinsically linked by the similarities of their subject matter; both are so much about the battle to overcome inhuman treatment that one seems to be the cousin to the other.  And yet, I think Schindler’s List dealt with the subject in a much better and much craftier way.

Amistad has moments of great emotional power, but it is a movie that steps wrong in so many different ways.  Schindler’s List dealt perfectly with the deception of a war profiteer to save 1,100 Jews from the hands of the Nazis.  Amistad is a 19th century courtroom drama that deals with the question of whether or not a group of purloined Africans could be considered property.  That’s where I have a problem.

The subject of slavery is tricky because the larger picture of the American slave trade is so vast that a two or three hour narrative isn’t sufficient to capture the complete horror of that era.  In that, Amistad deals with the subject in a way that feels rather awkward.  The issue at hand is a slave revolt led by the imposing figure of Cinque (Djimon Honsou), an African tribal leader whose people are captured in Africa and, on the way to Cuba, engineer a revolt in which they kill all aboard except the Spanish captain.  Cinque intends the ship to go back to Africa, but instead it veers into American waters and the Africans are minted slaves.

Stuck in a land that is unfamiliar to them, jailed by white men who speak a language they do not understand and run through a court system that is unfamiliar to them, they don’t understand their plight.  None of the men speak English so it is left to their attorney Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to try and come up with the way to defend them even though none can understand him.  Even his associate Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), a freed slave from Georgia can’t communicate with them.

The story deals with the lawyer’s attempts to free these men in a case that eventually reaches the Supreme Court.  It is tricky, and requires the aid of the wise and wonderful former President of the United States John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins).

Much like Oscar Schindler’s attempts to bribe the Nazis with money and gifts to save the lives of the Jews that were being exterminated on a daily basis, here is a movie that argues for the freedoms of these men and requires just as much craftiness to get around the barriers of the law and the barriers of language to try this case even though they all know that doing so will spark a debate that is likely to send the country into civil war.

Yet, I find that the urgency of Amistad isn’t as strong as it should be.  Yes, we want the Africans to be returned to their country, but somehow it feels less compelling.  That’s not to say that it is not an important story, but I just wasn’t as moved as I should have been.

There were two characters that I found intriguing.  One is Cinque, the leader of the Africans who doesn’t speak English but whose powerful presence speaks volumes.  The other is former President John Quincy Adams, whose elegant 11-minutes speech to the Supreme Court is one of the greatest courtroom scenes in recent memory.

The other characters left me cold.  The defense attorney Roger Baldwin seemed like a typical movie lawyer.  He at first sees the case as just another case, but by the end his heart has apparently change.  Yet, I don’t see how his character has changed at all.  For me, he seems more like a functionary, a mouth-piece for the case.  The other is Theodore Joadson, played by Morgan Freeman.  He is a special associate to Baldwin but what is his real stake in this?  How does a freed slave see this case in relation to his own experience?  Freeman is a great actor but he seems to be missing some key scenes here and it leaves his character without purpose.

Amistad is a movie waiting to make a big emotional point, but I always come away feeling rather hollow.  Of course the cause of slavery is important to the larger tapestry of American history but this movie seems to be more about ideals then about the urgency of abolition.  I think Spielberg dealt much better with the same subject in Lincoln 15 years later with the attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment.  That film had the power that this film does not.  Amistad is a good film, not a great one.


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