If you were wondering what Steven Spielberg could possibly do for an encore after “Schindler’s List,” the answer is “Amistad.”
If the first film finally established his credentials as a serious filmmaker as well as a master fabricator of big pop entertainments, “Amistad” confirms them. It’s a big, bold, noble juggernaut of a film that literally and figuratively brings to light a pivotal piece of American history - the aftermath of an 1839 slave ship revolt that worked its way up to the Supreme Court and, in effect, demanded that the young republic either put up or shut up - and brace itself for the fallout still raining down from the racism that to this day keeps America divided.
If not without a degree of shortfall, it’s nonetheless a powerhouse film, with a powerhouse performance from Djimon Hounsou as the leader of the revolt of 53 Africans he later was to remind a court weren’t slaves, but kidnap victims trying to free themselves and go home. Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, go for broke from the start, plunging us into the darkness of a Cuba-bound slave ship’s hold. Glints of light make us realize we’re in the same space as other human beings, up as close as the camera can bring us.
Light bounces off a giant eye, sweating skin, and finally an iron nail embedded in mortar, holding a ring securing chains.
Bloody fingers claw at it until it’s pried loose, the chains are lifted free, other men are freed, and in no time they’re spilling up onto the deck, killing the Spanish, overwhelming them, hacking away, grabbing guns and swords, bloodily turning them on their owners.
It’s quick, brutal, and decisive. The captives control the ship. They leave two Spaniards alive because they can’t navigate and the Spaniards can. Off the coast of Connecticut, where they stop to take on water, they’re intercepted by a U.S. Navy cutter, taken captive again, and imprisoned while a legal tangle takes on a life of its own.
No sooner have they been put on trial for murder in a Connecticut court than things turn monstrously surreal. Their first advocate is a hustling real estate attorney played by Matthew McConaughey, who’s hired by abolitionist defenders of the jailed Africans on the absurd but ironically sensible premise that their rights as humans can best be defended by legalistically resorting to property law.
But it’s not that simple. Nigel Hawthorne’s dithery U.S. president Martin Van Buren, facing a stiff re-election campaign and needing the votes of the slave-owning South, tries to stack the deck against the Africans. The case finally goes to the Supreme Court, where the majority of justices are Southerners, and where the real estate lawyer is replaced by former president John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins as a magnificently crusty and incorruptible old puritan of 74, who argues that in the appeals process, the U.S. itself has been placed on trial, with a world waiting to see where its principles will land when put to the test.
Meanwhile, the Africans, led by Hounsou’s Mende tribesman, wait with dignity. And, as Spielberg shrewdly never stops reminding us, they wait in alienation. His casting of Africans to play Africans emphasizes the fact that they come from different places, speak different languages. Moreover, the film reminds us, it isn’t just a language gap that separates the Africans from the Americans, but profoundly divergent world views. The film’s most moving scene comes when Hounsou’s Cinque (a corruption of his name, Singbe) is told the trial will be a struggle. His response is to call upon the spirits of his ancestors to strengthen him. He does not feel he is alone.
Meanwhile, Hopkins’s Adams feels very much alone, even though his father was one of the men who invented America.
It is only one of many ironies punctuating the film. Turning the tables on the Spanish slavers, Spielberg has borrowed the film’s dark look from the great Spanish painter and fierce humanist Goya as the Africans move from the dungeon of the slave ship to the only slightly less confining jungle of a Connecticut prison.
The key to McConaughey’s solid performance as the real estate lawyer is that he sees only as far into the future as he has to in order to win the case in the lower court - and then grows as he begins to comprehend the profundity of what he’s grappling with.
The authority in Hounsou’s performance means he doesn’t have to grow in dignity. He has it all along. It just takes the Americans a while to become aware of it. As for Hopkins’s Adams, you know everything he’s going to say, yet you’re gripped and stirred when he says it. Morgan Freeman, surprisingly, seems largely wasted, though, possibly because in playing a character designed as a composite of several abolitionists, he ends up lacking a strong individual profile.
“Amistad” is big in its passions, big in its generosity, big in its humanity. It isn’t afraid to work boldly and broadly to the mainstream. It isn’t perfect. A too-obvious piece of grandstanding in the courtroom could have been better accomplished by simply using Hounsou’s face.
And John Williams’s music prods us with counterproductive intrusiveness, perhaps another reaction to the fact that once the Africans are captured, the film turns static, consisting of men in various rooms, talking. Considerable as “Amistad” is, it doesn’t quite equal the moment-to-moment tension of “Schindler’s List,” nor its differentiation of characters.
But these are small things wrong with a big film. Don’t let anyone tell you “Amistad” is just a dry history lesson. Its permeated by a thrilling level of conviction and commitment. Shot in Newport, R.I.; Mystic, Conn.; Boston, and other New England locations, the visuals seem freshly minted, bringing to life an America in the making.
Also, the film never makes the mistake of merging the Africans into easy brotherhood. “Amistad” (ultimate irony - the word means “friendship” in Spanish) may be idealistic, but it’s never sentimental. Cinque and the others wish only to return home; they don’t want to become Americans.
It’s clear that the materialism driving the new country is at odds with the family and tribal loyalties the Africans think paramount. Still, America passes the test in “Amistad.”
Not with flying colors, perhaps, but in this case with a magnificent language of visual discourse from a prodigiously gifted maker of images.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Amistad” Location: Newport Cinemas Credits: Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConnaughey, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgard, Razaaq Adoti, Abu Bakaar Fofanah, Chiwetel Ejiofor Running time: 2:32 Rating: R