(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 being on display in one single solitary movie than Amistad.
They’re all present and to such extremes; the movie vacillates between them, back and forth and back and forth and back again.
Amistad boasts sequences truly equal to Spielberg’s best. At times, it even feels 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 five “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 depicting that revolt with abrupt surrealism. Rather than applying kinetic war-like film language, Spielberg constructs the prolonged mutiny with a fever-dream artistry.
It’s mesmerizing, strange, ferociously hypnotic, and possibly the most phantasmagorical thing Spielberg has 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. There, the slaves are caught in legal limbo, pawns of three different entities (including Spain) that each lay 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 Amistad into the familiar: a courtroom drama.
As legal dramas go, this true case is obviously a fascinating one, particularly as it would implicitly and literally test the bounds of legalized slave trade in the United States. The very ruling, depending on where it would and how that ruling would be worded, would put into official legal question if any human being could be legally defined as property.
The problem here, however, is that the case’s compelling legal details (though discussed, at times) end up taking a back seat to a whole lot of speechifying, not just in the courtroom but also during 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 all so overly-scripted and staged (indeed, it’s more suited for the stage, not the screen) as characters speak with varying degrees of self-import. Constitutional ideals — as well as ones American and Human — are proclaimed with self-conscious awareness. These characters are all-too-aware 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 may be. Both cast and score are often equal offenders, working in tandem.
The story’s subjects can be sectioned off into two categories:
- Themes that require Spielberg’s empathy, due to not having lived them (Slavery, Christianity)
- Themes that have long-held his fascination and sympathies (American Government and Constitutional Idealism).
Ironically, the more connected and familiar that Spielberg feels to the 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 he knows (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. 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. It’s a lengthy flashback to how Cinque (the leader of the slave mutiny) came to be on the Amistad.
Violent and harrowing, Spielberg tracks how Cinque was captured, processed, and shipped. We see firsthand the systemic structure of the slave trade and its dehumanizing inhumanity.
Once at sea on their transatlantic journey, even more horrors meet Cinque and his fellow slaves. It’s as graphic and unsettling as anything Spielberg wrought in Schindler’s List, and matches 12 Years A Slave at its most sadistic and cruel.
By contrast, the courtroom scenes 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 more forced and much less convincing when it’s debating the issues rather than depicting them.
The Abolitionists (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard) fare better than the crusading lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) or ex-President statesman John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). All are honorable. Hell, they’re even heroic. But with each word that escapes their lips, the lawyer and the President seem keenly aware of the history they’re forging.
The most compelling characters are the ones who don’t speak English, led by Djimon Hounsou as Cinque, who displays passionate rage and deep-rooted wisdom with equal veracity. The African ensemble is vibrant, charismatic, and brings a welcome intensity to the elitist American airs. They also provide sincere notes of quiet strength and grace. (Meanwhile, the A-list talent is often too mannered — Hopkins especially).
In one of the film’s most surprising scenes, Spielberg portrays an extended exchange about the life of Christ. It’s shared to Cinque by a fellow slave. Unable to read or understand English, the slave has gleaned the story of Jesus through drawings in a Bible. In Christ — from death to resurrection — the slave has found strength and hope.
The conversation is as full and clear of a Gospel presentation as you’ll ever hear in a major motion picture this side of an actual Jesus movie, and credit Spielberg — whose religious tradition is Judaism — for granting that much screen time to the Gospel message (and reverently so, no less), even though it does nothing to propel the narrative. It’s there, simply yet profoundly, as a poetic example of a the spiritual evolution that was happening in the African-American experience.
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 revolutionary Hamilton-esque jolt to its aesthetic form.
Despite the wildly mixed results, Amistad remains a must-see. Its most visceral sequences are simply not to be missed; they’re truly profound. If only the entire film were made up of them.
Of all of Spielberg’s American historical dramas, Amistad is arguably the best of the five…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.
- Amistad was one of Spielberg’s fastest shoots; it was completed in just 31 days, which is barely longer than many low-budget indies.
- This was the film debut of Chiwetel Ejiofor. He would later star in the lead role of 12 Years A Slave.
- Amistad marked yet another attempt by Spielberg to work with Sean Connery again. He asked his Last Crusade co-star to play John Quincy Adams, just as he had asked him five years prior to play John Hammond in Jurassic Park, but once again Connery turned Spielberg down.
- With The Lost World: Jurassic Park having also been released in 1997 (just been six months prior in May), the release of Amistad marked the third time in Spielberg’s career that he released two films in the same calendar year, and in the same manner: one in the summer, and one at Oscar season. The prior two years were 1989 (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade / Always) and 1993 (Jurassic Park / Schindler’s List). This would occur three more times in Spielberg’s career as well, although the third time would find his two films being released within the same week.