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What does Steven Spielberg want? A shelf full of Academy Awards? Mere public adulation? Recognition as a humanitarian? Is he exorcising some personal demons it’s best we don’t know about? Because we’re three—OK, two and a half—movies into his Injustice Cycle, and already even those programmed to respond to Spielberg’s oversize cinematic indignation are growing suspicious.
However artistically, breast-beatingly, or convincingly he argues that some historical social imbalance was wrong wrong wrong, his movies don’t get any better for the strength of his guilt-ridden conviction. Granted, Amistad, the story of an 1839 slave-ship mutiny and the subsequent Supreme Court battle over the fate of the abductees, is no The Lost World; at least this latest effort is riveting every moment Anthony Hopkins isn’t onscreen. But Spielberg hopelessly muddles content and execution—just as he has done with his dinosaur flicks—so that by the end of whatever two-hour-plus spectacle you’re being subjected to, the director has by turns made a righteous point, skipped laughingly away from it, wept bitter tears, and forgotten what he’s doing there. Amistad strikes attitudes and varies wildly in pitch; it’s as if Spielberg wanted to throw every mitigating factor and contradiction to his argument up there and hoped they would run down the screen in an attractive pattern—much the way Spike Lee makes films, for better or worse.
Amistad opens on the rebellion, led by a strong young Mende named Sengbe (which the Spaniards simplify to Cinque). The passengers slaughter all their captors but spare the captain and his mate so that they may return the ship to Africa. But the Spaniards steer the ship to the States, hoping to recoup something for their trouble. There, the Africans are charged with murder and piracy. Although their cause is taken up by white abolitionist Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) and freed slave and businessman Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), the lawyer secured to represent them is a two-bit real estate attorney named Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey).
Baldwin presents the case as a property issue—the Africans weren’t slaves enacting a violent mutiny, but free human beings illegally taken from their homes. It’s a good argument, and he wins, but in a panic because freeing the Africans might mean insurrection by the Southern states, President Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) pulls a new judge out of his pocket. Finally, even Baldwin can’t hold his own against the power the Africans call “chief” or “big man”; the case goes to the Supreme Court, with former president and great orator John Quincy Adams arguing for the Africans’ side. It is this final, supposedly glorious speech, interminably boring as droned by Hopkins and filmed by Spielberg, that provides the precedent-setting ruling and plants the most fecund seed of civil war.
“Everyone” is in this thing—semi-stars and classy names guaranteed to give cachet to such a project. With an unseemly glee, Spielberg plays show-and-tell with his swanky new pets, parading them literally one by one in the first big scene set in America, in which each enters the courthouse to make a claim for the prisoners. Pete Postlethwaite comes in, says his piece, and then stands around ticking and frowning and silently emoting while David Paymer does his thing, etc. (Imagine the Miss America contest with dusty frock coats instead of swimsuits.)
But most of the story is Baldwin’s, unfortunately, and McConaughey has proved in film after film that he can’t act and won’t try, just as he proved on multiple magazine covers that he’s not handsome, whatever the spindly old female editors want us to believe. He is the one who must make the connection with the Africans, choosing Cinque, the lion-killer, as a representative. So they trade cultural puzzlement, bump up against their language barriers, and then undergo moments of wonderment as Cinque (not Baldwin) figures out what the other guy is getting at. With unsightly fuzz glued all over his face, Baldwin looks up through his weeny little spectacles and says things that are supposed to be surprisingly clever for a shady real estate lawyer, but McConaughey is far too narcissistic to make a convincing transformation from wily attorney to caring human being—he ends the film with a gulping, smiling-through-the-tears expression that is full of self-love.
The showy little roles overstuffed with acting fare poorly as well. Paymer, brilliant as he is, never seems to get a fix on the period (I would have suggested Jeremy Piven, but no one asked), and Postlethwaite substitutes tilting his head in an offensive, birdlike manner for actually acting. Anna Paquin is poorly used as the pre-pubescent Queen Isabella II of Spain, and Hopkins, who is supposed to own the film but merely borrows it, is too much the fusty old slyboots, primping the specimens in his greenhouse with deceptive dodderiness while letting slip dazzling scraps of wisdom. Freeman’s character is a composite meant to demonstrate that there were freed American slaves with economical and political power, but his presence is weird, since no one seems to notice he’s black or indeed points out that he has a personal stake in obtaining justice for the Africans.
As Cinque, Beninese actor/model Djimon Hounsou more than holds his head up. His character’s physical beauty and power have already stacked the deck in his favor against the pulpy-skinned white folk who want to punish him, in some part for his beauty and power. Hounsou seems to glide through the movie, serenely pretending it’s good. But Spielberg contorts him into some very uncomfortable positions—the worst is the moment of the Big Uplift, in which Cinque has a Miracle Worker breakthrough in the courtroom, while angelic choruses hoot overhead.
With all the tricks Spielberg uses to get us on the Africans’ side, you wonder if he isn’t a tad ambivalent about his subject. After all, he keeps making these shallow, reverential movies about great historical injustices, and it’s his outrage you’re supposed to react to. Amistad isn’t pretty or shapely—it’s directed by the chunk, so scenes that stay admirably low-key are up against massive, soaring moments and images of the most provocative cruelty imaginable.
The most manipulative, rottenest trick he pulls is a cavalier way with subtitles. The opening scenes translate only the Spanish, not any of the African languages spoken by the three tribes—you don’t even know that members of three tribes are involved until their territorial squabbles in the detaining court are translated for your enlightenment. The film provides subtitles only as comic or dramatic effect dictates; the decision is based not on what the Africans are saying but on its effect on us.
Baldwin reminds them of some dung-scraper guy back home, setting up a number of jokes dependent on our seeing them as skeptical, suspicious, and smarter than their captors. “What of the dung-scraper?” one asks in court, as they’re trying to get a fix on the principals. “I have a horrible feeling he speaks for us,” answers Cinque, effortlessly modern.
There’s one repellent sequence that may reveal more Spielberg psychology than necessary—it’s those guilty demons again. The depiction of the cruelty and torture undergone by the Africans in the first sea journey, on the notorious slaveship Tacora, is filmed with a kind of self-flagellatory relish, and the fetishistic details—Cinque is splashed in the eye by the blood of a shipmate being whipped—are too luridly and lovingly crafted to dismiss. There’s a rich sadism in lingering over how the transportees turn into the animals they’re treated as at feeding time. Then the camera reveals that this is a visual evocation (more cinematic than some more spoken iteration) of Cinque’s court testimony. It’s a cheat, and a nasty one.
Elsewhere, Amistad is just plain shameless. Prisoner Yamba takes a Bible from a hymn-singing abolitionist and spends long nights in the cell poring over it. Finally, he explains to Cinque the story it tells: A man is detained and punished for a trumped-up crime, but he endures in history and in people’s hearts. The movie does have fun with the abolitionists, though, accentuating the self-serving looniness of the pinch-faced Christians praying for the uncomprehending Africans’ souls. There’s a reason anti-abortion nutballs align themselves with abolitionists—hey, maybe Spielberg…nah.
Amistad isn’t pretty—it’s all one color, a sickly yellow-green—and the story is lumpily told and too easy to root for. It’s still a better movie than Schindler’s List, although it accomplishes the same purpose. It was said in these pages that Schindler’s List was the first feel-good movie about the Holocaust. And Amistad, a story whose purpose is audience uplift and conscience-appeasing, told with cinematic swoop and pomp, is the definition of side-of-the-angels feel-good moviemaking.