(for some scenes of strong brutal violence and some related nudity)
Released: December 25, 1997
Runtime: 155 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Stellan Skarsgard, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Hawthorne, Pete Postlethwaite, David Paymer, Chiwetel Ejiofor
It’s hard to recall a more stark example of a director’s absolute best and worst tendencies on display, and at such extremes – back and forth and back and forth – throughout the course of one single solitary movie.
Amistad not only boasts sequences equal to Spielberg’s best but, at times, it’s completely singular in its mastery. Then at other times, Amistad is a staid, pandering melodramatic history lesson that wallows in Spielberg’s worst impulses.
This would mark the first of Steven’s four (to date) “noble” looks at American history; like the others, the more Amistad strives for nobility the more it becomes too “important” for its own good. At its worst, this dramatization’s maudlin American piety (though admirable) borders on unbearable. Yet when the movie steps back – and shuts its mouth – to observe the slave trade in unflinching brutality, Amistad is a flat-out masterpiece.
“La Amistad” was the name of a Spanish slave ship that, as it approached American waters, fell siege to one of the most dramatic slave revolts in the bleak history of that trade, and it occurred at sea. Spielberg opens the film with abrupt surrealism, depicting this uprising with a fever-dream artistry and in prolonged fashion. It’s mesmerizing, strange, ferociously hypnotic, and possibly the most phantasmagorical thing Spielberg’s ever done. I honestly can’t compare it to anything else in his entire canon.
Once conquered, the ship and its slaves are adrift. Eventually, La Amistad is commandeered by U.S. troops off the American coast. The slaves are caught in legal limbo between three different entities, including Spain, that each lay competing claims on the ship’s “property”. And with that, Spielberg takes what held the promise of another radical departure into uncharted territory – both for him as a filmmaker and us as an audience – and turns it into the familiar: a courtroom drama.
As legal dramas go, this true case is obviously a fascinating one, particularly as it would both implicitly and literally test the bounds of legalized slave trade in the United States. The very ruling, depending on where it landed and how it was worded, could begin to question if any human could be legally defined as property.
The problem here, however, is that the case’s compelling legal details, while discussed, end up taking a back seat to a whole lot of speechifying, not just in court but also in recess conversations. At home, during meals, on the streets, or with the slaves, the topic is debated with grandiose rhetoric between lawyers, activists, and politicians.
It’s overly-scripted and staged (and more suited for the stage, not the screen) as characters speak with varying degrees of self-import. American, Human, and Constitutional ideals are proclaimed with a self-conscious awareness of their historical moment, expressed through heavy-handed symbols, metaphors, gestures, and declarations.
And when these people aren’t (in effect) telling us how noble they are, John Williams’ overstated music does (beautifully composed though it is). Both are often equal offenders working in tandem.
The story’s subjects can be squared off into two categories: elements that require Spielberg’s empathy (slavery, Christianity) from those that already have his long-held sympathies (namely American government and Constitutional idealism). Ironically, the more connected Spielberg feels to certain scenes and material, the worse off it lands. He wields his biases (well-placed though they are) like a moral sledgehammer from atop a soapbox.
Conversely, the less that Spielberg speaks the language of something (the African experience; Christian doctrine) the more authentically and effectively it’s rendered. Or in more simple terms: if it’s white people, they’re grandstanding, but if it’s black people it’s devastating.
Along with the film’s powerful opening, there’s another sequence about halfway through that takes us into the gauntlet of the slave trade, its systemic structure and dehumanizing inhumanity. Violent and harrowing, this lengthy flashback tracks how Cinque (the leader of the slave mutiny) was captured, processed, and shipped, and how he came to be on the Amistad.
Once at sea, even more horrors meet Cinque and his fellow slaves on their transatlantic journey. It’s as unsettling and graphic as anything in Schindler’s List, and matches 12 Years A Slave at its most sadistic and cruel.
The courtroom scenes, by contrast, are packed with bald-face contrivances, dramatic excesses, and plenty of gavel-banging (the “Give us free!” disturbance is a crass manipulation of the first order). Amistad is much less convincing – and much more forced – when it’s debating the issues than when its depicting them.
The Abolitionists (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard) fare much better than the crusading lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) or statesman ex-President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). All are honorable, even heroic, but the latter seem particularly aware of the very history they’re forging with each word that escapes their lips.
The most compelling characters are the ones who don’t speak English, led by Djimon Hounsou as Cinque. The name talent is impressive, certainly (Hopkins in particular), but also too mannered. The African cast is vibrant, charismatic, and brings a welcome intensity to the American airs, but along with that also notes of quiet grace and strength (Hounsou displays passionate rage and deep-rooted wisdom with equal veracity).
In one of the film’s most surprising scenes, Spielberg portrays an extended exchange about the life of Jesus. It’s shared to Cinque by a fellow slave; he has gleaned Christ’s story through drawings in a Bible. There in Christ, from death to resurrection, the slave has found strength and hope.
The conversation is as full and clear a Gospel presentation as you’ll ever hear in a major motion picture this side of an actual Jesus movie, and credit Spielberg – whose biases are with Judaism – for granting that much screen time (reverently, no less) to the Gospel message, even though it does nothing to propel the narrative.
And yet the climactic scene, which was entirely necessary – and factual – rings false. This lengthy closing argument by former President Adams comes off as a lecture, and for nearly twenty minutes the movie shoves it down our throats. It’s exactly the kind of stultifying historical re-enactment that could’ve used a Hamilton-esque revolutionary jolt in the aesthetic form.
Despite the wildly mixed results, Amistad remains a must-see, with profoundly visceral sequences that are simply not to be missed. If only the entire film were made up of them. When it comes to Spielberg’s American historical dramas, Amistad is arguably the best of the four…whenever it’s not spending half its time being the worst.
- Anthony Hopkins delivered his climactic 7-page courtroom speech in one single take. After such a feat, Spielberg could no longer bring himself to call Hopkins “Tony” and instead referred to him by his royal title Sir Anthony.
- One of Spielberg’s fastest shoots, Amistad was completed in 31 days.
- This marked the film debut of Chiwetel Ejiofor. He would later star in 12 Years A Slave.
- This also marked yet another attempt by Spielberg to work again with Sean Connery. He asked his Last Crusade co-star to play John Quincy Adams, just as he had for Connery to play John Hammond in Jurassic Park, but once again Spielberg was turned down.
- With The Lost World: Jurassic Park having just been released six months prior in May, the release of Amistad marked the third time in Spielberg’s career that he released two films in a calendar year, one in the summer and one in Oscar season. The prior two years were 1989 (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade / Always) and 1993 (Jurassic Park / Schindler’s List). This will occur three more times in Spielberg’s career as well.