Amistad (1997)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

"Freedom is not given. It is our right at birth. But there are some moments when it must be taken."

Based on a true story from American history, this movie contains a number of liberty themes. The impressive cast of actors gives fine performances. The sets seem very authentic, as do the costumes. As director, Spielberg organizes all the elements with skill. This Dreamworks / HBO picture tells a fascinating story in the history of the struggle for freedom.

It begins in 1839 in the hold of a ship with a black man (Cinque: Djimon Hounsou) who pries loose a nail which in combination with a set of chains binds him. Once removed he uses the nail to further release himself from the binding chains. A storm rocks the ship. With his fellows -- now also freed -- but still in the ship's hold, he opens a crate of weapons. They arm themselves, leave the hold for the main deck and attack the men who've kept them prisoners. The former prisoners eventually prevail and take control of the ship, demanding of their former captors to be taken back from whence they came. More than any of the other former prisoners, Cinque leads the group aboard the ship: La Amistad.

Eventually, after a long period in the open sea the ship comes to land where the people of Amistad find needed water. While returning to the ship the crew of a US Navy vessel takes them into custody, Their fate now rests with the American political system, which returns the blacks to chains and prison cells. The system treats their two surviving Spanish captors much differently.

The case of the people of the Amistad gains the attention of two heads of state: Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin) and Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) the President of the United States. Van Buren -- on the campaign trail -- discusses the situation with Hammond (Xander Berkeley) his aide, giving little attention to the people of the Amistad. He tells his aide: “I don't care how. You just take care of it.”

Meanwhile, abolitionists have also heard about the people of the Amistad. Two of them, Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård) believe the captives don't come from the usual 1839 slave sources. At an arraignment in a federal district court presided over by Judge Juttson (Allan Rich), District Attorney Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite) states the government's original charges of piracy and murder, while Tappan interrupts with a writ of habeas corpus. Secretary of State Forsyth (David Paymer) also interrupts Holabird. He states the President's position by treaty taking the part of Queen Isabella of Spain who claims to own the “slaves” of the Amistad. Two crewmen of the US naval vessel also claim to own the “slaves” from salvage rights. The two Spanish survivors of La Amistad attend also claiming to own the “slaves.”

After watching all this Roger S Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) introduces himself as an expert in property claim law to Tappan and Joadson as they leave the courthouse. Tappan dismisses Baldwin saying that they need a criminal attorney for the case. They go to Washington DC to seek the counsel of John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). He advises them to “find someone whose inspiration blossoms the more you lose.” They return to Mr. Baldwin who shows a fair grasp of the issues involved.

In addition to Baldwin, eventually the abolitionists find Ensign Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor, "the Operative" of Serenity in a much earlier role) who speaks Mende -- the language of the people of the Amistad. Having their testimony translated to English greatly helps their cause. That is enough to introduce most of the main characters. In addition, a nicely played role by Jeremy Northam as a seemingly principled young federal judge merits notice.

I recommend Amistad although it has a few flaws, e. g. its length and occasional unlikely dialog for 1839. The unorthodox but unusually frank view given of the more religious abolitionists rates as one of the aspects I liked most about this film. The natural reactions of the people of the Amistad to the unnatural lives and convoluted systems of the American State rank even higher on my list of positive aspects. Attorney Baldwin's and Abolitionist Joadson's straightforward desire to free the people of the Amistad, in contrast to Tappan's to “make a statement” by having them martyred, and the actions taken in consequence also show methods practical at the time for achieving their liberty. I believe Steven Spielberg has made better serious films than Amistad, but this movie still ranks very well in the historical film category. I think Amistad will entertain as well as tell a part of American and world history that more people need to know.

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