Steven Spielberg’s slavery drama exemplifies the late-career inconsistencies of the hitmaker. Startling moments of dramatic intensity and eye-popping depiction of the horrors of slavery are marred by heavy-handed preachiness. Thus, like many films of the post 80’s era we can admire the film but never feel fully satisfied by it in the end.
Amistad (1997) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Stellan Skarsgaard
By Alan Bacchus
The opening scene represents a fresh departure in his visual aesthetics. Janusz Kaminski’s bold macro-lensed camera capture enslaved African Cinque (Hounsou) escaping his chains of bondage with eye-popping intensity. We’d see Spielberg and Kaminski use this technique later in Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report, but they test it here first and the effect makes for one of Spielberg’s best opening sequences in his entire filmography.
After Cinque and his fellow captives take over the ship it’s met by an American vessel, then taken into custody by federal authorities who assume they are mutinous slaves. Defended by the righteous lawyer Roger Baldwin (McConaughey), Cinque finds himself in the middle of a court battle with a number of parties claiming either compensation for the men or outright ownership. These claims make for strange but startlingly sad absurdities about slavery and America’s place in this disturbing period in history. Mr. Spielberg is not subtle identifying these absurdities. Typically, performances are loud and boisterous and don’t allow for any kind of interpretation or reflection. It would appear Spielberg would mature years later with a more nuanced depiction of similar themes in 2012’s Lincoln.
Beyond the broad issue of slavery Spielberg finds strong drama and conflict in the communication barrier between Cinque and his lawyer. It’s a refreshingly original bit of storytelling, whereas most other films would have found a translator immediately in order to create dialogue between the characters, the struggle to communicate the most basic information makes for some of the best moments in the film.
The long narrative, which stretches to over two and half hours clips along thanks for David Franzoni’s evolving story. A number of stories within the story (such as the communication struggles) adequately breakdown the film into digestible pieces, set pieces and episodes to the point we’re rarely looking at our watches.
Unfortunately Spielberg can’t avoid the banalities of the central courtroom storyline which in the midpoint threatens to grind the film to a crawl. But the film is jump started in the midpoint when he crafts a remarkable flashback sequence which visualizes Cinque’s journey from Africa to Washington with uncompromising horror. I can’t imagine the difficulty in shooting scenes of men and women, completely nude chained to one and other, beaten, whipped, and in the film’s most startling moment, thrown of the side of the boat.
Unfortunately outside of this sequence and the opening revolt the rest Amistad never meets the power of these scenes. It’s Spielberg’s least interesting film visually as well. Rudimentary coverage and camera movement create a strange episodic television quality, especially in the courtroom scenes.
Any life left in the film is completely sucked out by the truly awful final speech by Anthony Hopkins who, as John Quincy Adams steps up in the Supreme Court with an excruciatingly overwrought and noble speech which saves the day for Cinque.
That said we’re left with a genuinely poignant moment of Cinque on another boat bathed in the light of one of Spielberg classic motifs, the setting sun.
Amistad is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Home Entertainment