EMPIRE ESSAY: Amistad Review

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Fact-based story of the 1839 revolt by Africans on the slaveship Amistad and their subsequent trial when they are taken on American soil.


THE 17TH FILM of Steven Spielberg's career (his first for DreamWorks) remains an interesting, underrated curio. A further illustration of Spielberg's desire to grapple seriously with history (witness The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan), it was dismissed on release either as a dry civics lesson (which is partially true) or as a kind of "Schindler's Roots", an attempt by Spielberg to hijack someone else's cultural heritage to win critical kudos (which is patently untrue). It has been relegated, alongside The Sugarland Express and Always, to the ranks of Spielberg Films No-One Ever Talks About — which is a shame as there is much more going on here than first met the eye.

Originally, Spielberg was going to segue from The Lost World straight to Private Ryan. Yet, slipping in a project initiated by producer Debbie Allen (of Fame fame), he took a stripped down crew from the Jurassic sequel and shot Amistad on the fly in just 46 days. The subject of a highly publicised (and ultimately unsuccessful) plagiarism lawsuit after respected author Barbara Chase-Riboud claimed that DreamWorks stole that interpretation of history described in her novel Echo Of Lions; the source material centres on the aftermath of a mutiny by 53 African captives aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad. As the mutineers, led by Cinque (Hounsou), are captured in American waters, a series of courtroom trials begins to determine ownership of the slaves, the case finally ending up in the supreme court with ex-President John Quincy Adams (Hopkins) fighting for the Africans' freedom.

On its opening, even the most die-hard Spielberg aficionado had trouble defending its merits. Yet this dislocation for the real-life Dawson Leerys could have arisen because, on first impressions, this is the most un-Spielberg film that Spielberg has ever made. Storytelling briskness is replaced by ponderous pacing. Spectacle is sidelined by an abundance of dialogue. Visual dynamism is usurped by painterly tableaux, a series of static, muted, distanced compositions aeons away from The Color Purple's prettification of black culture.

However, Amistad echoes around Spielberg's movies in more ways than were first apparent. It shares with Temple Of Doom, Empire Of The Sun and Schindler's List themes of incarceration and survival and, as lawyer Roger Baldwin (McConaughey) tries to discover who the Africans are, the film elaborates on a striving for communication that has traversed much of Spielberg's work, in particular Close Encounters and E.T..

Moreover, all the typical directorial nous is present and correct, only this time you had to search for it; the massive close-ups of Cinque's features in the opening insurrection; the colour scheme of the courtroom which progresses from an overblown messy look highlighting the prisoners' limbo through to the pristine velvety elegance of the Supreme Court as a verdict is finally delivered. The images depicting the slave ship drownings — an infant raised above the tortured bodies in the ship's hold, the chains of Africans pushed to their death — are among the most shocking, sorrowful yet strangely beautiful Spielberg has committed ever to film, the brutality perfectly counterpointed by the tinkling of a music box. In a year when Titanic won the Academy award for Best Picture, the filmmaking finesse Spielberg brought to Amistad looked positively arthouse.

A further demonstration of Spielberg's ability to tap into the Zeitgeist, the release of Amistad coincided with a reinvestigation into America's relationship with slavery. President Clinton held a "town meeting" with prominent authors to ponder race debates, schools named after slave owners underwent moniker changes and debates raged over whether Americans should formally apologise for slavery (as Germany did for Nazism), and pay billions of dollars in reparations to descendants of slaves.

Into this hotbed, Amistad came under attack from certain historians as a misleading brand of "infotainment" —DreamWorks literature surrounding the film quoted conversations between Adams and Cinque when in reality the pair never met — but was generally perceived to respect the complexities in the issues of slavery and race. From Cinque battling Baldwin to infighting between African tribes through the congressional sparring of Adams, this is a film full of conciliation but, importantly, not reconciliation. Spielberg has no easy solutions to the race problem: just a sensible awareness of cultures, language and dialects intermingling in the New World.
That race is such an open wound stateside may have contributed to the markedly different reception afforded Amistad than Schindler's List: while the horrors of the Holocaust happened thousands of miles away, the spectre of slavery happened right on their own doorstep, boring a hole in the US soul. Not only was Spielberg's meditation on homegrown atrocity underappreciated, it may also have been largely unwanted.

A subtle and righteous film with a host of fine performances.