In 1839, the revolt of Mende captives aboard a Spanish owned ship causes a major controversy in the United States when the ship is captured off the coast of Long Island. The courts must decide whether the Mende are slaves or legally free.
Amistad is the name of a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the U.S. in 1839. It is carrying a cargo of Africans who have been sold into slavery in Cuba, taken on board, and chained in the cargo hold of the ship. As the ship is crossing from Cuba to the U.S., Cinque, who was a tribal leader in Africa, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship. They continue to sail, hoping to find help when they land. Instead, when they reach the United States, they are imprisoned as runaway slaves. They don't speak a word of English, and it seems like they are doomed to die for killing their captors when an abolitionist lawyer decides to take their case, arguing that they were free citizens of another country and not slaves at all. The case finally gets to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams makes an impassioned and eloquent plea for their release. Written by
M Parkinson, Sarasota, FL, USA
Dismissed on its release as a dry civics lesson or as "Schindler's List with slaves", which is a shame, because there is so much intricate stuff going on here that fans of Spielberg and his normally in-your-face approach might not grasp the moral ambiguity and more subtle touches that roam beneath the surface. In a year dominated by Titanic this was publicly dismissed as too serious or arty...
Why is it un-Spielberg? Ponderous pacing replaces storytelling fluidity and speed, his normally active camera is replaced by more painterly compositions.. Instead of having stuff jump at you, you have to search for it or feel it without truly realizing it: touches of genius are very present, but differ from the original style (like the brutal insurrection scenes, cargo dumping scene, etc).
The story itself focuses on a mutiny aboard a transatlantic slave ship, led by Cinque. The ship is intercepted by the American navy and a messy trial ensues to see who has rights regarding the cargo, Spain, America... or are the slaves not "legal" slaves after all? Cue abolitionists hiring young property lawyer Baldwin. These events, based on facts, occur before the Civil War.
I can feel people sighing from here. "Oh, no: not a courtroom drama...". Labelling it as such would be missing the point by a mile. It is so much about context and moral ambiguity, and ultimately the tragic ridicule of the situation. Amistad is also a technical marvel. Janusz Kaminski's (SPR, Schindler's List, AI, Minority Report...) photography is superb, a dark study in sepia browns. The acting is magnificent, mainly two amazing performances. One by Anthony Hopkins as former president John Quincy Adams (an unusual turn for him, where he really soars), and the other by Djimon Hounsou (later cast as Juba in Gladiator) as Cinque being the true gem.
Ultimately, Amistad's greatest strength is that it avoids offering any easy answers and in that sense, does to subconscious issues about race and slavery what Kubrick's 2001 did to space travel and progress, albeit with more humanity and more accessible drama. It's a shame this film is never talked about.
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