Amistad

Amistad

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The revolt on a Spanish slave ship off the coast of Cuba in 1839 put the new American constitution to a severe test and gives Steven Spielberg an opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of the cinematic arts.

Essentially a costume courtroom drama concerning the rights of what used to be called savages, the film can hardly be accused of playing safe. One of its qualities is a refusal to compromise integrity for the sake of commercial advantage. The sentimental gloss put upon The Color Purple is missing here. These Africans speak a strange tongue and have no concept of Uncle Tom.

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The inhuman conditions on the slave ship and the cruelty of its crew are presented as bad-enough-for-animals-good-enough-for-natives. The trade is seen for what it was, a lucrative barter of chattels. The idea that these black beasts might benefit from the legal protection bestowed upon civilised people is beyond the comprehension of slavers. Why not let a water buffalo vote?

When the ship is boarded by American coastguards after eight weeks at sea, sails torn and tattered, food and water almost gone, the 50 rebels are imprisoned in Connecticut and brought to trial for murder. Local abolitionists take up their case and hire an inexperienced real estate attorney, Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), to represent them. His first task - his main task - is to find out where they come from. His second is to understand a word they say.

The case causes unease in political circles. President Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) is campaigning for re-election on a pro slavery ticket, while Southern congressmen talk of civil war if the verdict goes in favour of the accused. Pressure is applied and the law bent backwards. Only Baldwin's sharp mind and fierce determination stands in the way until a doddery ex-President, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), hauls himself out of his conservatory to take on the Supreme Court in the name of justice, freedom and the dignity of man.

The Africans do not behave like victims. They are unintimidated and angry. Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), their leader is unpredictable, proud and intelligent. Spielberg accentuates the difference between white and black to emphasise the strengths and fears on either side.

David Franzoni's script is both eloquent and enriching. The actors respond as if honoured to be part of it, especially Hopkins who physically alters his appearance to take on the burden of a crusty old campaigner, soured by experience. Anyone who doubts his talent and thinks maybe The Silence Of The Lambs was a one-off should see this film and marvel at the work he puts into a role. He doesn't have mannerisms like other actors. He has a look of sadness in his eye and a level of concentration that appears effortless.

Nothing is, of course, not even Spielberg's reputation for smash hits. Amistad is one of his deeply felt niche pictures that won't cause ripples on the stock market because of its uncompromising nature. Being tough with history doesn't pay in La La land.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Courtroom drama about a mutiny on a slave ship.
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