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Review: Amistad (1997)

Amistad (1997)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg  

Premise: A dramatization of the 1837 revolt by enslaved Africans held aboard a ship headed for America. When the boat reaches American shores, a trial ensues over the status and future of the Africans.

What Works: Despite the fact that slavery is such an important part of American history, very few Hollywood films have actually taken it on in a meaningful way. Hollywood’s avoidance of the subject is understandable. It is difficult for an industry built on making broadly appealing entertainment to take on such an unpleasant topic and Hollywood’s historical epics have often dealt with slavery either by softening it as in Gone With the Wind or ignoring it altogether as in The Patriot.  It is fitting then that Steven Spielberg, who is best known for creating popcorn films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, would direct Amistad, which manages to face the horrors of slavery while presenting it in an entertaining context. Much like Spielberg accomplished in Schindler’s List, Amistad confronts the audience with some difficult imagery, such as the horrors of Middle Passage and the violence of the slave rebellion, but Spielberg makes it engaging rather than repulsive. Similarly, something Amistad does especially well is to overcome the problem of perspective. A popular criticism of stories like this is that they are often told from the point of view of members of the oppressive class and often reduce the minorities to pawns or trophies. Although Amistad is led primarily by a white male cast, the African characters retain their humanity. This is especially true of Djimon Hounsou, who plays African leader Cinque, and Hounsou brings a great deal of dignity to his role but the script also allows him failings and flaws. By crossing frank images of slavery’s cruelty with African characters who retain their personhood, Amistad is able to construct a vision of slavery that captures its dimensions. And as Amistad sets that vision of slavery against the arguments presented in the courtroom, the film takes another step upward in its scope, as it uses the mutiny on the ship and the legal arguments around it to make the film a philosophical inquiry into the rights of man. This academic and political argument develops in tandem with Amistad’s portrayal of the Africans’ progress from slaves to defendants who are aware of their position and begin to speak out for themselves. This is a complex group of relationships and Amistad pulls it off in ways that are effective both intellectually and emotionally.

What Doesn’t: Amistad is primarily a courtroom drama and the film has a lot of the clichés of the genre, such as the small time lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) who faces off against a well-funded establishment. Although the long scenes of people talking are well directed and Spielberg finds ways to add visual flair to the speeches and testimonies, the format of the story isn’t all that different from many other movies and television shows taking place in courtrooms. Amistad is also flawed in its resolution. The film concludes on a speech by John Qunicy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins, who takes over the defense of the Africans when the trial goes to the Supreme Court. Although Adams’ involvement is historically accurate and his final speech is terrific, it short changes the heroism of McConaughey and Hounsou’s characters as the elder statesman rides in for the rescue in the last moment.  

DVD extras: Featurette.

Bottom Line: Amistad is a worthwhile film that takes on the issue of slavery. Although it is in many ways a conventional courtroom drama, the story is a smart philosophical dialogue about human dignity.

Episode: #353 (August 21, 2011)