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Nashville Scene Up From Slavery

"Amistad" is a good handling of a great subject.

By Noel Murray

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  One unfortunate by-product of the way we teach history in this country is that major events in our past seem both removed and compressed--as if everything important happened over one weekend about a century ago. The era of slavery in America seems so distant that it may as well have taken place only in books; and yet, if you count the colonial period, slavery has been part of the European settlement of America longer than emancipation. And whether we're aware of it or not, the fundamental inequity in lifestyle and opportunity between whites and blacks in this country can be traced directly to the "peculiar institution" that brought an entire race here against its will.

It's therefore important that the details of slavery be recounted for each new generation, so that we understand the injustice that still pervades our society. And for that reason Steven Spielberg's Amistad is an important film. With producer Debbie Allen, and with screenwriters David Franzoni and an uncredited Steven Zaillian, Spielberg expands the true story of a slave-ship revolt in 1839 to include the multitude of horrors that accompanied the transport of slaves. In haunting sequences, Spielberg portrays the starvation, the beatings, and the inhuman practice of dropping whole chain gangs of slaves overboard. He also shows the ultimate end to cruelty, as the Amistad captives rise up and slaughter their captors.

But Amistad is not entirely a film about slavery, or even slave ships. It is mainly a courtroom drama, covering the events that took place when the slave ship La Amistad floated into a Connecticut harbor. A number of competing interests came forth to plead for rightful ownership of the cargo--the Cuban owners of the slaver, the naval officers who seized the boat, Queen Isabella of Spain (backed by President Martin Van Buren), and a party of abolitionists who staked a claim that the Africans should be freed.

An all-star cast stands in for the principals (and the principles), including Pete Postlethwaite as the government's attorney, David Paymer as the secretary of state, Matthew McConaug-hey as a property lawyer fighting on behalf of the abolitionists, and Nigel Hawthorne as a president fighting both for reelection and to avoid a potential civil war. The stars of the film, though, are Djimon Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins. Hounsou plays Cinque, the leader of the revolt, who struggles honorably to understand the capricious American justice system. Hopkins plays John Quincy Adams, the former president who argues the Amistad case in front of the Supreme Court. Adams' eloquent oratory--wherein he compares the slave revolt to the American Revolution--is delivered by Hopkins in one of the film's more thrilling high points.

The other star of Amistad, of course, is Steven Spielberg, who brings his talent as an entertainer to bear on what could have been a dry legal tale. This is especially welcome in the film's contemplation of Christianity's role in slavery, as well as in a climax that compares Cinque's reliance on the wisdom of his ancestors with our own reverence for our founding fathers. Spielberg makes these tricky themes lively and palatable.

Remaking history Morgan Freeman, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Matthew McConaughey, actors whose talents aren't put to best use in Amistad Photo by Andrew Cooper

Whether this story needs the complete "Spielberg touch" (right down to the wall-to-wall John Williams music) is another matter, however. What he accomplishes as director is undeniably stirring, but it's also a bit too simplistic--the constant emphasis on emotional thrusts punctures what should've been a more complex, relevant narrative. We're left mostly with a passionate argument against slavery, delivered without the connections to modern life that would sharpen its points.

Admittedly, making a movie like Amistad is almost a no-win situation for a director. There are so many interested parties who want--no, need--to have the story told "correctly" that somebody is bound to be offended. Already, people are howling over Spielberg's decision to paint the Amistad captives as an exotic other, as pure and incomprehensible as his beloved dinosaurs and aliens. On the other side of the fence, historical critics are picking at the film for its "PC-ification" of the actual events--namely, giving Cinque a greater presence in the courtroom than was actually the case. Given the unlikelihood of pleasing everybody, all a filmmaker can do is tell the story he wants to tell, and do it with sincerity and artistry.

And this is where Amistad falls short. Spielberg's best film, Schindler's List, combined a meticulous documentation of the horrors of the Holocaust with a nuanced study of two characters--Liam Neeson's morally hazy Schindler and Ralph Fiennes' crude, middle-managerial Nazi commandant. With the exception of Hopkins' Adams, Amistad's characters are bland and uncomplicated. The government lawyers are snidely officious, the abolitionists are colorless handwringers, and Cinque and his tribesmen are noble bystanders.

The real shame is the way Amistad wastes Morgan Freeman in what should've been the key role of an abolitionist freedman. Freeman says little and does less, when his character could've filled reels with information about what it was like to be born into slavery, how Northern society treated free blacks (worth noting if we're to understand what will happen to the Amistad captives), and what connection, if any, he feels to the native Africans. An artist may have the right to tell a story however he chooses, but to modify the Amistad saga to include more details about slave ships, and then to ignore what happened when those slaves reached the States, is a major lapse.

At the end, as Spielberg wraps up the stories of many of the major characters, the film explains that within a few decades the U.S. would be embroiled in the Civil War, while back in Africa, Cinque's own country would also be torn apart by a civil war. This is a fascinating historical tidbit--one that speaks to the strife that immorality spawns (for what tore African villages apart was the practice of clans capturing enemies and then selling them into slavery). The 30 years between the Amistad case and the Civil War should've been depicted in a way that would make the audience aware of how historical events work in a chain that pulls us all along to our fate. A great movie would've made the coincidence of wars stoked by slavery seem inevitable. Unfortunately, Amistad is merely a good movie.

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