A band of escaped then re-captrured African slaves fight for their freedom in early 19th century America.
As slave epics go, and, let's be honest, there ain't much demand for them, this is about the most visceral and uncliched version you could hope for. It is not docudrama for the Channel 4 crowd nor Roots for the Schindler's List generation. Hell, it is not even a slave story as such. Instead, Spielberg has mounted a courtroom drama to rival the finest Grisham, with a coruscating civil rights debate resonating both within the film and into the present as the audience knows it. Producer Debbie Allen (her of the "Fame costs and this is where you start paying" fame) spent 14 years touting this around Hollywood before Spielberg got to transform an interesting and neglected story into an electrifying and compelling one.
An incongrous group of players dovetail into an effective repertory company (and it is a rep, rather than a star vehicle for any one of its top notch leads). Spielberg has armed this with heavyweights such as Freeman (in a relatively slight role as a free black abolitionist Theodore Joadson), Hopkins (extraordinary as ex-President John Quincy Adams) and last year's Überhunk McConaughey (the birdlike property lawyer Roger Baldwin) and has slipped us one of the greatest surprises of recent cinema in the shape of ex-fashion model Djimon Hounsou as the African's leader Cinque (pronounced sin-kay).
And so to the story. In the summer of 1839 off the coast of Cuba, 53 Africans held in the cargo holds of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad break free of their shackles and take control of the ship. Led by Cinque, they rely on the two remaining Spanish sailors to navigate them back to Africa but are tricked and subsequently captured by an American naval ship off the coast of Connecticut. Imprisoned in New Haven, their cause is championed first by Freeman's Joadson and McConaughey's Baldwin, the latter interested only in the misapplied property aspects of the case rather than the fate of the Africans. Which is where the courtroom drama begins - an odd one given that no one can communicate with the prisoners who come from six different West African tribes and don't understand English. The case becomes a symbol of a nation divided, where a President and ex-President lock horns and an infantile Queen Isabella of Spain (The Piano's Anna Paquin) stamps her feet, insisting that her "property" must be returned.
Few other directors could have taken such a worthy but not obviously compelling story and doused it so effectively with the kerosene of drama, emotion and blood. If highlights must be named, then the opening is one, in which the blacks hack their way to freedom; another is the eviscerating moment when prisoners are thrown overboard for weighing down the ship. But then, tragedy is easily compelling. What is more satisfying is that even Hopkins' Supreme Court appearance is of equal strength, a testament to the width and breadth of the piece. And there is no nannying costume drama feel about it, either. Visually, Amistad is a study in sepia brown: using a special photographic process that enhances shadows, makes highlights "glow" and desaturates the colour, the scenes have a tableau feel to them, hence the limited use of camera moves.
Gratifyingly, Spielberg is aware of the power of a history that provides an unending dialogue between present and past but also knows its cinematic trap doors; ramming it down a multiplex audience's mouth in between gobfuls of salted popcorn does not a movie experience make. And so he does what he has shown he is master of: watertight story construction, sumptuous but relevant visuals and relentless drama.
Amistad proves itself not to be the slave sequel to Schindler's List, but something altogether more surprising.