These are people, Mr. Baldwin... not livestock.
Even before the long-anticipated second Dreamworks SKG release, "Amistad", hit the theaters, it was already mired in controversy. Central to the $10 million lawsuit was the issue of whether or not screenwriter David Franzoni had plagiarized from "Echo of Lions", a book outlining the historical record of the slave ship mutiny written by author Barbara Chase-Riboud. Chase-Riboud asserts that Fanzoni had pitched the story to director Steven Spielberg after reading "Echo of Lions", in addition to other books on the subject. Meanwhile Dreamworks SKG lawyers have retaliated by attempting to undermine Chase-Riboud's credibility by claiming that her tome was plagiarized from the work of other authors.
Regardless of the outcome of this real world courtroom drama, "Amistad" is a compelling, and most likely Oscar-bound, historical courtroom drama that sheds light on an overlooked period in American history between the Declaration of Independence and the American Civil War. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, this ambitious film covers a lot of ground. The film opens with Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) pulling a bolt out of the floor with his bloodied fingers, which he uses to unlock the shackles that restrain him. He and his fellow slaves then take over the ship they are on, La Amistad (Spanish for 'friendship'), slaughtering the white crew, save for the two men that had bought them-- they convince the slaves that they can take them home. Almost two months later, after the provisions have been consumed and ten of the slaves have succumbed to illness, the ship lands off the shore of Connecticut, where it is captured by the Americans. The slaves are removed from the ship, imprisoned, and are put on trial for the 'massacre at sea', spearheaded by the government prosecutor Holabird (Pete Postlewaite, in a more substantial role than he had in "The Lost World")
Immediately, several claims over the fate of the slaves surface. The two survivors of the Amistad crew demand that their 'property' be returned to them, and argue that they have not broken any anti-slavery laws with their contention that the slaves are second-generation slaves from Cuba. The prepubescent Queen Isabella II (Ann Paquin), who is eleven and still playing with dolls at the time of the incident, is demanding the return of the slaves to Spain, as per a treaty between Spain and the United States. And two officers aboard the American ship that captured the Amistad also claim ownership under maritime salvage laws.
There is also a fourth party that demands freedom for the slaves, headed by abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), a former slave himself, and businessman Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard). They are joined by a property lawyer named Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey, who played a similar role in "A Time to Kill"), who believes that the key to winning the freedom of the slaves is, ironically, to present to the court the notion that they are 'illegally-obtained goods', and the courts decision falls in the jurisdiction of property law.
Unfortunately, there are also politics complicating the outcome of the court case. President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) and his Secretary of State Forsyth (David Paymer) manipulate the court proceedings in order to appease his constituents in the southern states, who he must rely not only for his re-election, but to dispel the dark clouds of a civil war. To counter this threat, Joadson appeals to the former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to speak on their behalf. However, being neither an abolitionist or a pro-slavery advocate, he declines at first, only to be drawn in to the proceedings by his strong sense of morality, where he gives an ardent summation to the Supreme Court that draws on the founding principles of the American people.
Spielberg shows his strength as a director through the use of a contextual narrative that requires the viewer to gather the necessary information through imagery, rather than relying on dialogue. For example, in the opening sequence of the shipboard revolt, subtitles are not provided for the dialogue between the slaves, who are speaking in their native tongue, Mende. However, Spielberg is able to effectively propel the story forward on the basis of gestures, facial expressions, and imagery. This use of context becomes even more important later on with the language barrier between the slaves and the team defending them, and the process by which Cinque begins to understand the curious rituals that he witnesses during the trial.
There are many other moments where Spielberg deliberately uses imagery to highlight the many facets of the story. He juxtaposes the indigent living conditions of the slaves with the opulence of American and European society. A brilliant sequence has one of the slaves interpreting the basis of Christianity from the illustrations in a Bible while a hand-picked judge, who is amenable to the pro-slavery stance, prays in a church. As Cinque is marched in chains down the streets of New Haven to the courthouse, he spies three ship masts that recall an illustration of the death of Christ. And the journey of Cinque from his capture in Africa to his arrival on the Amistad is downright brutal with graphic depiction of the dehumanizing treatment at the hands of his captors-- one of the images that you will remember is of fifty slaves being weighed down by rocks and being thrown overboard to drown when provisions on the ship ran low.
Performances run from strong to passable in this film. Djimon Hounsou gives a memorable performance in his dignified portrayal of Cinque, as does Hopkins, who eloquently displays the transformation of Adams from a slumbering political figure to fiery political activist. McConnaughey's performance is flat, betraying little emotion and paling in comparison to that of Hounsou and Hopkins. Unfortunately, Freeman is completely wasted in this film, with very little to do except to fill in the gaps of the story.
"Amistad" is a well-crafted film that not only instructs, but entertains as well. It does for the slave trade what his Oscar-winning "Schindler's List" did for the horrors of the Holocaust. Spielberg has created an engaging and unforgettable film that everyone should see.