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I do not attend more than a handful of movies a year at a theatre. I rent far more videos, Amistad being one of them. As I recall, Amistad did not wow the theatrical audiences big-time. But the expression "big-time" seems to indicate numbers of dollars and attendees. I am also a big fan of Anthony Hopkins and remember him as a compelling actor long before his Oscar role. I believe that he and the African actor Djimon Hounsou should have been seriously considered for acting awards. I don't recall that any were given or even suggested. The cinematography, set decoration, lighting, and editing were extraordinary. I was reminded that interior spaces in the 1830's were not garishly lit Hollywood sets with dramatic shadows. Perhaps the costuming was a bit overdone. Many of the actors appeared "dressed". The most emotionally devastating episodes for me were the barbaric transporting and drowning of the slaves. I literally held my hands over my face as these scenes unfolded. I hope this film lives on to become a classic. My respect for Spielberg's artistry has been taken to another level. Other viewers have commented on static qualities of this film. Well, folks, This was not "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "Judgement at Nuremberg"; it was historic filmmaking in more than one way. It was accurate, literate, and not politically correct or incorrect. Bravo, Dreamworks!
I can say that back when I was a lad going to school in the Fifties and
Sixties in Brooklyn, New York USA, we never learned of such things as
the Amistad revolt. For that matter we learned nothing of Denmark
Vesey's or Nat Turner's slave revolt. We learned about the Civil War
and what led up to it. But the plight of the slaves themselves, not a
So when Steven Spielberg did this film about an incident known to serious historians, but not to the public at large, I say BRAVO to Mr. Spielberg.
What has to be remembered here is that the while slavery was legal, the importation of slaves had been banned for quite some time by 1839. The Africans depicted here are forbidden to be slaves in the first place.
It was hoped that when the Constitution got going in 1789 that slavery might die on its own accord. But unfortunately a guy named Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which was a device for picking through the pesky seeds in the cotton fibers. That made cotton THE crop of the south and gave slavery a new lease on life. And as you see in Amistad anything that threatened the life of what the south was pleased to call it's "peculiar institution" was a call to arms.
Amistad gives us the portrait of two United States presidents. The current one in 1839 is Martin Van Buren who's probably best known for being the real founder of the Democratic party political machine. He succeeded Andrew Jackson on March 4, 1837 and promptly was greeted with a bank panic that led to a depression. His chances for re-election in 1840 were not looking good to start with and he was exceptionally vulnerable to southern pressure. Ironically enough his last bid for public office was in 1848 as the third party presidential candidate of the Free Soil anti-slavery party. Nigel Hawthorne captures Van Buren, a man who always played his cards close to the vest.
A very different sort was John Quincy Adams our sixth president from 1825 to 1829. His presidency was probably the least successful time in his whole public career which starts as teenager during the American Revolution. He undertook a series of diplomatic assignments culminating with being Secretary of State under James Monroe from 1817 to 1825. Of course he was the son of our second president John Adams and like his father refused to do even the normal political things that could have gotten him re-elected.
As an ex-President he was serving in the House of Representatives in 1839 one of only two whoever went back to Congress after their presidential term was up. By this time he was a passionate abolitionist and the pleading of the cause of the Amistad slaves was an opportunity and a challenge. Anthony Hopkins captures the man who was now called Old Man Eloquent down to his clipped New England speech.
What happens briefly is that a cargo of Africans on a Spanish slaver revolted mid sea and killed all but two on board. Those two were preserved because the Africans didn't know anything of seamanship. The two remaining steered the ship Amistad to Long Island where the whole story is discovered. The Africans become a legal and political football all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Other performances to note are Morgan Freeman as black free man Theodore Joadson, Stellan Skarsgaard as abolitionist Lewis Tappan, Matthew McConaughey as attorney Roger Baldwin and most of all Djimon Hounsou as Cinque the leader of the African's revolt.
Before his story is told the attorneys have to learn the language and Spielberg graphically portrays their struggle for communication. Hounsou's portrayal of a man in an alien world who's only desire is to go back where he came from will sear your very soul.
Amistad is grand entertainment and a needed history lesson about man's need for and willingness to fight to be his own master.
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.
There is one thing that I've never understood about Hollywood. When it
comes to historic and realistic movies, they have used about every
possible subject. Think of the American Civil War, the Hollocaust, the
Second World War, the Vietnam war,... Each of these historic subjects
has been used in a movie at least once. And there is absolutely nothing
wrong with that, as long as it is done properly and accurately, because
these movies are often the only source of new knowledge for a lot of
people once they have left school (and even at school they hate history
classes because they don't seem to understand the importance of it).
But why aren't there so many movies about the slave trade and the
plantations? Are the studios afraid of that subject or are they so
racist, that they have never been able to come to terms with the
abolishment of slavery?
"Amistad" tells the story of a group of Africans who start a revolt against the crew of the slave ship La Amistad and get adrift for several weeks after this horrible event. Then they are discovered by some American marine officers, who bring the ship into harbor and hand over the slaves to the local authorities. Soon they have to stand trial for this revolt and the fact that they have murdered the crew. But a couple of honorable men, who want to end the slavery in the New World, will defend them with everything that is within their power ... even if that means that they will offend some other countries or start a civil war.
At the same time it's very easy and very hard to say what I liked about this movie. I liked almost everything about it, but explaining why will take some time. Let me start with the story on itself. The fact that it hasn't been told at least a dozen times makes it original, but doesn't make it easy to compare it to other similar movies of course. Still, the quality was more than OK and had a lot of variation to offer. It's clearly well-written with a good eye for detail and even though I'm normally not a fan of court room drama's, I must say that it didn't even bother me that a court room was the place where the biggest part of this movie was set. What I also liked was the acting. From people like Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins you can't expect anything else but a fine performance, but it was the rest of the cast that offered me a nice surprise. Djimon Hounsou for instance still isn't a house hold name, even though he has played in a few excellent movies like "Gladiator" and "In America", but once again he proves that he's a talented actor and I sure hope to see him in many more big productions soon.
Even though a large part of this movie was shot in a court room, it also offered plenty of other sets. You'll get to see the fort in Sierra Leone where the slaves were brought together to be shipped to the New World, you'll see a nice representation of the American cities of those days, you'll see the ships of that time... And perhaps it's the slave boat and all the scenes on it that were the most incredible. I don't think the horror of the slave trade was more obvious as it was in those scenes. They certainly aren't suited for people who can't stand the sight of blood or very graphic violence, but excluding them from this movie would not only be a shame, it would harm the sense of reality. And it's that sense of reality that makes this movie so special. Of course Steven Spielberg knows exactly how to make a movie feel as real as possible. Think of "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan", both movies that will always be in my list of the best movies I've ever seen, but with this movie he has proved that he can do more than telling a story situated in WWII.
In the end I can only say that this is a movie that every American and every European should see. The Americans should see it because the slaves ones were the reason why the plantations in the South prospered and the civil war was fought and the Europeans shouldn't miss it, for we should never forget that the slave trade will always be a dark page in our long history. This movie is for so many reasons worth to be seen (not once, but at least a couple of times), that it doesn't deserve anything less than an 8.5/10.
What is freedom? How does one determine who is free? In 1839, those
questions were more difficult to answer then they are now. Yet, the
mistakes of our forefathers must be examined in order to rectify current
That is, in essence, what Steven Spielberg's gripping drama "Amistad" is about. Through its various dramas, Spielberg presents a case about a group of Africans, who, after being seized from their home, were forced onto a ship and sent to the United States aboard "La Amistad". On their way there, the slaves, led by Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), rebelled, killing off part of the crew. However, the ship was still directed towards the United States, where the Africans were brought to trial under murder.
In the court, various factions claim ownership of the slaves, and therefore try to seize them away. The United States government, led by President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), and Secretary of State Secretary Forsyth (David Paymer), try to ship the Africans to Spain, where an 11 year old Isabella II (Anna Paquin) wants them back. The two Spaniards who own "La Amistad" want the slaves for themselves. The American ship that found the slaves also wants them. In the midst of this are two abolitionists (Stellan Skaarsgard and Morgan Freeman), who want the slaves to be free. They enlist the help of lawyer Matthew McConaughey, who tries to free them. Through various legal proceedings, the case appears before the Supreme Court, where it is argued by ex-President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins).
The film itself is a visual wonder. Spielberg favorite Janusz Kaminski sets the film in a dark, somber mood when appropriate, and a visual setting when appropriate as well. At times, the film is very slow, and very methodical. Spielberg is not at his finest here, the courtroom scenes have a tendency to lag. But Spielberg's finest work in the film, the opening scene, a scene of Cinque's family, and the brutal voyage of the slaves to America, is altogether stunning. It is this emotional force that carries the film. McConaughey is superb as the lawyer defending the Africans, Hopkins is sensational as the old Adams, Freeman is outstanding when used (Spielberg vastly under uses his supreme talents), and the rest of the cast is stellar. The movie, however, belongs to Hounsou. His emotional intensity is brilliant. Spielberg manages to make even the slowest scenes sparkle with focus on Hounsou, and the film's extraordinary power is simply captivating. The film is flawed, for most of the supporting characters are merely cardboard. But that doesn't matter. The story is a gripping one, and one of extreme importance. Kudos to Spielberg for finding it, finding the right men for the job, and letting the audience listen to the words of Cinque. A good job all around. ***1/2 out of 4, or an 8 out of 10.
Amistad is a very well crafted, well acted, and well told story. It is
also mostly true to the history of events surrounding the Amistad
'mutiny', and the defense of the Africans responsible for it by John
Quincy Adams and a young lawyer named Baldwin. I put the word mutiny in
quotes because it is absurd to think of people fighting against murder,
enslavement and rape as any form of crime. The film is unabashed about
showing us the brutality and outrageousness of the covertly
institutionalized slave trade that haunted one of America's darkest,
most retrograde periods, and pulls no punches about the cultural
differences between its victims, its culprits, and those who felt that
it was not their problem.
Amistad ranks as one of McConaughey's finest performances, perhaps his best. But nearly the entire cast is blown off the screen by the passionate, sensitive and profound performance of Djimon Hounsou. Hopkins is good as Adams, but what else is new? Though the film does not have a literary feel - it is pure cinema - it is a truly great story featuring bold characters and a deep and simple emotionality which draws its audience in. Alistad has a spirit that can only be described as truthfulness.
Despite his detractors, Spielburg proves again and again that morally decent films with positive messages can be entertaining and artfully crafted.
Amistad is one of them films that when the credits roll you just sit there and think what a wonderfull film that was ,what a well directed and well acted movie i have just seen. The acting is some of the best i have ever seen. the performances from Mathew McConaughue,Pete Postlethwaite and Morgan Freeman are Brilliant but check out the acting from Anthony Hopkins and Djimon Hounson,they are superb. The story is gripping and moving at the same time. The scenes on the Amistad ship are quite distressing and really show you how repulsive the slave trade was but this just adds to the realism and wonder of this fantastic film. A masterpeice. 9 out of 10.
While theatergoers in 1997 were being amazed by special effects on
another ship, this magnificent story given to us by the master director
Steven Spielberg gives us the true story of our country and what it
means to be American.
We are not free as long as one of us is in chains. As John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) so eloquently put it, "...what are we to do with that embarrassing, annoying document, The Declaration of Independence? What of its conceits? "All men created equal," "inalienable rights," "life, liberty," and so on and so forth?" The Civil War was, indeed, the last battle of The American Revolution.
What a cast! You can search for Fool's Gold or you can watch Matthew McConaughey in her greatest performance as the lawyer who risked it all.
Djimon Hounsou may Never Back Down this year, as he certainly didn't in this film.
Morgan Freeman certainly knows about "Freedom: A History of Us" and he helped the Africans find theirs.
One of the very best films I have ever seen.
The horrors of slavery are depicted here in graphic detail. The scenes dealing with the ships carrying their human cargo were awful - very hard to sit and watch. When the slaves were brought to America, a huge trial ensued over whether or not they should be freed or not. This was a big production complete with all the costumes of the era - the early 19th century. Great story, dialogue, and acting made this a must see film.
I am a fan of historically-based dramas. I enjoy the genre, and Amistad
did not disappoint me. It is well shot, the look and feel is quite
right, and it pulls no punches in its cruel depiction of the slave
Amistad shows this terrible business better than any other film I've ever seen. It portrays all the horrors: the capture of Africans at the hands of rival tribes; the abusive loading of slaves onto ships; the deplorable conditions; the murder and violence conducted in the name of economics; the hopelessness of the slaves' position; the crass indifference felt by the traders, auctioneers, owners and passers-by. Spielberg pulled few punches, only darkening the worst scenes to keep it from degenerating into some Rob Zombie horror film (thereby retaining an audience).
The film also does a good job with the portrayal of the heroes, the slaves who fought for their freedom aboard the schooner Amistad. You can really feel their anger, confusion, and frustration as the events unfold. They are a people pushed from one holding cell to another, subjected to trials and procedures incomprehensible to them (both for language barriers and for the inanity of it all).
One part the filmmakers did a fine job with was the communication barrier. Some of the best scenes involve the ignorance of the Connecticut gentry as they stare blankly at the Africans as they speak their tongue; incompetent linguists stating the obvious and disguising it as "science"; lawyers trying to figure out the slaves' stories; and finally the leader of the escaped Africans declaring "Give us free!" That part really stood out for me.
There are a few criticisms I can lay upon this film, however. Firstly, they didn't do that great of a job in portraying courtroom drama. Filmed in '97, this film predates some great television courtroom dramas (Law & Order, The Practice). Much of what happens in court is either boring or confusing or pointless. I think if Spielberg was able to study some of these great courtroom dramas, these parts would have had a lot more "punch". Having said that, Anthony Hopkins did some fine delivery as John Quincy Adams...
Another element I disliked was the clumsy interweaving of the "Big Slavery Picture" elements. There's a scene at President Van Buren's state dinner where Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina shows up and makes threats of civil war. The scene was really just thrown in there to try to put in some jeopardy, but the film was doing just fine without that. The intrigue between Van Buren and the Spanish girl queen was really nice, however (a very young Anna Paquin!).
The last element that didn't work too well was Morgan Freeman's character, Joadson. He really comes across as little more than an extra. He's such a fine actor, the script doesn't do him justice.
For the most part, this is a fine, and important, film. It just misses a few marks that would have made it a great film.
8 out of 10.
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