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Harvey Karten's review of Amistad (1997)

Reprinted with permission of author from


 By Harvey Karten, Ph.D.
 DreamWorks Pictures
 Director:  Steven Spielberg
 Writer:  David Franzoni & Steven Zaillian
 Cast: Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, Anthony Hopkins,
Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, David Paymer,
Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgard

   Some years ago it became fashionable in politically correct
circles to denigrate some American heroes.  Thus, Columbus
did not deserve annual veneration for discovering us but
rather defamation for prompting the wholesale slaughter of
the people who discovered America long before.  And what
about Jefferson's relationship with a black slave and George
Washington's ownership of same?  Was Lincoln hypocritical in
putting the union ahead of simple morality?  

   Just the other day we hear that some American high
schools have changed their designation because their
namesakes were tainted with ownership of vassals from
Africa.  Now, there is a Martin Van Buren High School in
Queens, New York, that has had no thoughts of alterations. 
Not until now.  According to a new, bold, in-your-face, epic
movie directed by Steven Spielberg, President Van Buren was
guilty of kowtowing to southern slaveholding interests.  In this
film, "Amistad," Van Buren attempts to fix a court case which,
if decided as he wished, would condemn forty-four black men
imprisoned in New Haven to execution in Cuba or Spain.

   "Amistad," filmed largely in the area of Newport, Rhode
Island with a design resembling the New Haven of the 1830s,
deals with an actual incident that occurred during that period
which strangely enough has not received any attention in
high-school or college history texts.  Any schoolchild can tell
you about the Nat Turner revolt, but if the incidents depicted
in this movie are truly based on actual occurrences, the
Amistad affair would be significantly more important, striking,
and alarming.  Spielberg unfolds the tale of a Spanish ship
ironically called Amistad (friendship) which is transporting
newly-purchased slaves from Havana to their new homes. 
When Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), a charismatic, larger-than-
life prisoner, manages to find the key to unlock the chains
binding him and his fellows, the newly-freed prisoners mutiny
and slaughter all whites aboard except for the two men who
have bought them: these two buy time by promising to guide
the ship back to Africa, but instead wander for two months up
the American coast until it is captured by an American naval
vessel off Connecticut.  The forty-four men are imprisoned
and held for trial on several counts of murder.  The general
belief is that if they are returned to Havana or sent to the
Spain of Isabella II, they will be executed there.

   The film is part courtroom scene, with segments devoted to
incidents on two slave ships, one Spanish, the other
Portuguese.  While Spielberg's audience will be composed
(hopefully) largely of kids in secondary schools and below, the
director-producer does not shrink from displaying graphic
violence.  The opening shots are particularly riveting, as
Cinque, breathing heavily and bleeding from all fingers,
endeavors to pry loose the key to his chains.  The massacre
of the Spaniards is graphically presented down to the severe
stabbing received by one hapless fellow at the hands of the
involuntary cargo.  In yet another grim vista, Portuguese
slavetraders are shown chaining fifty prisoners to a sack of
stones and throwing the human payload overboard to drown
when provisions were running low.  (We are told that this was
the practice as well when the Europeans had to destroy
evidence of their illegal sailing.)  

   At the trials of the black men both in Federal District Court
in New Haven and before the U.S. Supreme Court, much is
bandied about of the paramount desire of people for their
freedom. As the press notes say, "Freedom cannot be given./
It is our right, at birth./ But there are moments in time/ when it
must be taken."  Yet the case turned not on epic moral issues
like liberty but on a purely technical consideration.  Were
these men who are being shipped into involuntary servitude
actually born in Cuba of parents who were themselves slaves,
or were they taken forcibly from their homes in Africa?  If the
former, then they indeed were legally taken and could be
returned to Cuba for execution.  If, however, they were
abducted as free men from Africa, those who transported
them were engaging in illegal practices, as the trading of
slaves was barred by both the English who had colonies in
Africa and by the Americans, who maintained slavery in some
states but prohibited their continued transoceanic exchanges. 
If the trade were carried out illegally, the treaty between the
U.S. and Spain agreeing to return cargoes of property would
not be relevant.
   Much of this techno-legal information may be missed by an
audience attending the film to grasp the conspicuous
spectacle of the horrors of the slave trade.  In fact, some
background in history and politics would help quite a bit in
deciphering the practical issues dealt with by Spielberg and
his wonderful cast of characters.  In much the way that film-
makers use particular locations to simulate the look of a
historical period, Spielberg has filled the screen with British
performers, recognizing that the principal settlers in the
America approaching the mid-century period were of Northern
European stock.  Thus Anthony Hopkins shucks his English
accept for that of the New England speech of former
president John Q. Adams and Nigel Hawthorne assumes the
role of the incumbent president, Martin Van Buren, who is
raked across the coals by Spielberg.  Pete Postlethwaite
casts off the goody-goody role he assumed in "Brassed Off"
to take on the role of prosecutor who insists that the prisoners
be returned to their Spanish owners.

   Perhaps the most complex character of the movie is that of
real estate attorney Roger Baldwin, played by Matthew
McConaughey, who is featured with reading glasses
suspended on the tip of his nose as a practical lawyer-turned
idealist.  Believing that his specialty has particular relevance
since the case dealt with property, he undergoes a
transformation into a visionary who sees his clients as real
human beings with the same need for liberation as any white
person would require.  Spielberg, adapting a sharply-drawn
script by David Franzoni, draws upon other subtleties as well,
as when he contrasts two abolitionists.  Theodore Joadson
(Morgan Freeman), a former slave who is prominent in the
abolitionist cause, becomes infuriated when a fellow
abolitionist, Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) suggests that
the anti-slavery crusade might be strengthened if the black
men were executed and thus turned into martyrs.  Anna
Paquin has fun with the role of the eleven-year-old monarch
ruling over Spain, a pre-pubescent, amoral potentate who in
one scene jumps gaily on her bed with a doll in her arms and
in another writes spirited memos back to Secretary of State
Forsyth insisting that the black men be returned to Spain.  

   Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski does a particularly fine
job in contrasting the glitter of the White House during a state
dinner with the muted colors of shipboard mayhem while
Spielberg evokes particular poignancy with the problems that
two groups can encounter when faced with a language gap. 
Significantly, much of the dialogue of the Mende people (who,
not surprisingly speak Mende) goes untranslated, leaving the
audience with the task of figuring out what is being
communicated by Cinque and those of his tribe.  Language
differences do indeed put some people on Venus while others
are on Mars.

   While "Amistad" highlights true ensemble acting, Djimon
Hounsou stands out as the ferocious, freedom-loving leader
Cinque, whose glaring eyes and untamed body language do
justice to what Anthony Hopkins insists--in his monologue
before the Supreme Court--is man's greatest need: freedom. 
Hounsou, a native of Benin who moved to Paris, has turned
out a career-making performance as the central figure of the
movie, one which will educate the audience about slavery in
much the way the "Schindler's List" schooled viewers about
the horrors of the Holocaust.  To say that "Amistad" should be
required in every high-school social studies class is not to
take away from its value as spectacular entertainment. 
"Amistad" is a picture you will not want to forego.  

Not Yet Rated.  Running Time: 153 minutes.  (C) 1997 Harvey Karten
Harvey Karten, Ph.D., is the head critic for CompuServe.