In 1997 director Steven Spielberg (Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Schindler's List) would release his latest film through Dreamworks pictures, a studio he co-founded with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen in 1994.
Spielberg's first film for Dreamworks was the powerful and harrowing historical drama Amistad, which told the amazing true story of a group of Africans who fought for their freedom in American courts after having risen up against their captors. The film's history dates back to the ‘80s when film producer Debbie Allen read a two-volume collection of essays on the Amistad Africans. Intrigued by the idea that those essays could potentially become a film and frustrated that much of the world was unaware of the Amistad uprising and the court trials that ensued thereafter, Debbie Allen became convinced that the story of the Amistad must be told and that the cinematic medium possessed the right qualities to make the story unforgettable. She was right. After seeing Spielberg's film Schindler's List, Allen was determined that Spielberg was the right director for Amistad. Spielberg agreed to direct the film after listening to Debbie Allen's passionate perspectives on the subject matter.
The loosening of a nail in a floorboard seems inconsequential enough, but it is that simple action that begins this story. With that nail an African prisoner aboard the slave ship La Amistad is able to pick the lock that keeps him and his fellow captives shackled. That prisoner is Sengbe Pieh and once freed from his cold iron restraints he will lead his fellow Africans in a bloody revolt against the slavers that planned to take them to the New World. Leaving only two members of the Spanish crew alive to help them navigate their way back to Africa, the Africans believe themselves to be liberated from the inhuman bondage that had for months held them below deck in one ship and then another. But their struggle has just begun.
The two Spanish men steer them off course by night while the Africans sleep and it's not too long before they arrive in the strange alien world of North America, where once again they are shackled and made prisoners. The Africans are to stand trial for the murder of the Amistad crew. The Amistad uprising becomes famous and what should happen to the Africans is a controversial and divisive subject. There are those who would see them executed for murder, those that believe they are merely property and therefore must be returned to their owners, and then there are those who say that they should go free. Two American slave abolitionists, Calvinist Lewis Tappan and former slave Theodore Joadson, realize that it's highly improbable that the slaves came from a plantation in Havana as the two Spanish survivors claim and they believe that it's far more likely that they were illegally abducted from Africa. However, how can they prove it without a lawyer and without being able to communicate with the Africans?
Soon Tappan and Joadson will have solved at least one of those problems. A young, streetwise lawyer named Roger Baldwin approaches them and offers to help them with their case. At first the two abolitionists dislike the cocky, amoral Baldwin, who has no moral comprehension of the abolitionist cause, but they ultimately understand that his savvy knowledge of the legal system is precisely what they need.
When Tappan, Joadson, and Baldwin attempt to interview the Africans, most of them regard them as being strange Westerners and they even nickname Baldwin "dung-scraper" in Mende. Not a very auspicious start and the limitations caused by their cultural differences and language barriers doesn't help the matter. Things only worsen when they first appear in court for the trial. The prosecution uses cruel racial stereotypes and refers to the Africans as barbarous savages. Despite Baldwin's confidence and objective logic as he argues the true origins of the slaves, the judge sides with the opposition. After the failure of the initial court hearing, Sengbe, now renamed Cinque by the Spaniards, approaches Baldwin and attempts to communicate with him before being dragged away in chains. Baldwin visits the prison and meets with Cinque. Though progress is slow since they don't know each other's languages, there is a general recognition that they must work together.
After obtaining a permit to search the Amistad, Baldwin and Joadson find vital evidence to support their case. Hidden on the ship were documents about the slaves and the ship's cargo, which at first would appear to support the Spaniards' claims, however these documents do not come from the Amistad, but from the notorious slave runner The Tecora. The Tecora, a Portuguese transatlantic vessel, is known for illegally taking Africans from their homes on the African coast and transporting them to Spain and the Americas, where they become slaves. In light of these facts, the judge reevaluates his stance. Though this is a step in the right direction and brings the Africans closer to freedom, greater obstacles will stand in their way.
The young Queen of Spain, Isabella II, aligns herself with the slavers, as her country is a slave owning and trading one. She places pressure on the U.S. government to find a mutually beneficial solution to the problem of these forty-four Africans.
As if that weren't enough, rumors begin to circulate that if the abolitionists have their way America will be one step closer to civil war between the slave owning and non-slave owning states. The North, taking the position of moral superiority while the South claims that their only chance at creating an equal economy relies on slave labor. Southern Senator John Calhoun tells President Martin Van Buren that, not only will he not be re-elected that fall, but that letting the Africans go will almost certainly guarantee war between North and South. After being advised on the matter Van Buren dismisses the judge currently on the case and appoints one of which he approves of; the young conservative Catholic Judge Coglin.
This new setback causes both Joadson and Baldwin to become outraged. They turn to former President John Quincy Adams, now a cantankerous, half senile old man, to help them win the case. He politely declines since he's neither a proponent for or against the abolition of slavery.
Desperate to improve their argument in court, Joadson and Baldwin come to the conclusion that they must be able to communicate with Cinque and the other Africans. They begin wandering the streets, searching for anyone who might be able to translate for them. Then they find James Covey, formerly Kai Nyagua, an ex-slave who speaks Mende, the dialect of Cinque's tribe.
Cinque explains, through Covey, how he was captured and enslaved. He tells them how he and hundreds of other Africans were taken to a massive slave fortress, how they were treated like animals, and loaded onto The Tecora, where they were vilely mistreated. He tells the court all of this and how the Africans were stripped naked and whipped, how they were packed into a tiny cargo hold with barely enough room to move, and how those that became ill were deprived food and then systematically thrown overboard. Cinque explains how they were taken to Havana, Cuba and sold, and then put on the ship La Amistad. He tells them of the uprising.
To everyone's surprise Judge Coglin sides with the Africans.
In the midst of a great celebration at the prison, Cinque is given disheartening news by Baldwin. President Van Buren has appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which means that they shall have to try the case again and this time it will be even harder to win because seven out of the nine justices are themselves slave owners.
Baldwin, as a last resort, writes a passionate plea to John Quincy Adams and asks him to help try the case. This time Adams agrees. After much research, many indirect consultations between Cinque and John Quincy Adams, hours and hours of meditation and preparation, the time finally comes once again to fight for the small group of Africans' freedom.
Their patience, conviction, and endurance pay off when miraculously the Supreme Court, with all but the exception of one, rules that the Africans are to be released at once and permitted to return to their homes. They are free at last.
Martin Van Buren would not be re-elected as President of the United States of America.
Cinque, now Sengbe once more, returned to his home in Africa to find that it had been ravaged by tribal warfare. His family was gone.
In 1861 those predictions of an American Civil War were proved to be true.
In 1865 the Union Army finally and permanently defeated the Confederacy, outlawing slavery nationwide.
The film features an extraordinary cast that includes Morgan Freeman as Theodore Joadson, Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin Van Buren, Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, Djimon Hounsou as Sengbe / Cinque, Matthew McConaughey as Roger Baldwin, and Stellan Skarsgard as Lewis Tappan. The supporting cast includes Xander Berkeley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paul Guilfoyle, Arliss Howard, Jeremy Northam, Anna Paquin, David Paymer, and Pete Postlethwaite.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan Freeman is excellent as Theodore Joadson.
Nigel Hawthorne is appropriately befuddled as overwhelmed President Martin Van Buren.
Anthony Hopkins gives a strong performance as John Quincy Adams and avoids the over-the-top melodrama that he is occasionally criticized for.
Djimon Hounsou is beyond brilliant in his breakout film role as the noble and desperate yet hopeful Cinque. His portrayal of the character possessing the unusual characteristic of being both heartbreaking and tremendously uplifting at the same time.
Matthew McConaughey, an actor for whom I am certainly not a fan, gives the best performance of his career so far as the street smart attorney Roger Baldwin.
The entire cast gives impressive performances.
David Franzoni, who imbues the film with an almost operatic sensibility, wrote the film's screenplay. The story is intensely emotional, of course, beginning with a powerful and memorable scene of violence as the slaves revolt at sea. Then the pace becomes slower, allowing audiences to grow attached to the characters, and from there the dramatic tension is slowly reintroduced into the court scenes. This tension builds throughout most of the early part of the film and then reaches its apex in one stunning scene in which Cinque, desperate to be liberated from unjust imprisonment, stands up in the middle of the court trial and demands, in the little English he knows, "Give us, us free!" This triumphant moment acts as the crescendo. From there on after, the film's pace is more relaxed though the fate of the Africans is far from being secured.
Director of photography Janusz Kaminski, who had previously collaborated with Steven Spielberg on Schindler's List, gives the film a painterly quality and lights the scene in rich, natural, autumnal colors reminiscent of artist Francisco Goya, whose paintings served as inspiration for the look and feel of the cinematography.
Michael Kahn, another of Spielberg's regular collaborators, skillfully edited the film.
As usual in Spielberg's films, John Williams provides the emotional score, which features a combination of orchestral music and tribal African music.
Though Amistad was widely regarded as a triumphant achievement by critics, it did only modestly at the Box Office. Despite the fact that the film lacks the poetic, lyrical traits of Schindler's List, Amistad is just as moving and perhaps more accessible on an emotional level. The film's production, costume design, music, acting, and direction are all of the highest standards and combined create an astounding and memorable emotional journey as we, the audience, empathize with Cinque's struggle for freedom… after all, the desire for freedom is universal.
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