AMISTAD (Steven Spielberg, 1997)

On July 2, 1839, a slave revolt occurred that is the starting-point of one of Steven Spielberg’s most widely disparaged films, Amistad, whose title is the name of the cargo (not slave) ship transporting 53 Mendians from West Africa, some of them children, from a slave market in Havana, Cuba, to the settlement of Puerto Principe, where their new Spanish owners, José Rûíz and Pedro Montes, lived. In the course of the rebellion, the men, led by Sengbe Pieh, called by the Spaniards Joseph Cinque, a rice farmer back home with a wife and family, killed the ship’s captain, Ramon Ferrer. Having taken possession of the ship, the unshackled men demanded that they be returned to Africa, but Rûíz, Montes and the crew instead headed for the United States. Several of the blacks died for want of food and water. On September 3, the Amistad was intercepted off Long Island by the U.S.S. Washington and towed to New London, Connecticut. Arrested for mutiny and Ferrer’s murder, the blacks were jailed in New Haven. Abolitionists, though, seized upon their cause. The presiding U.S. circuit court judge at their scheduled Hartford trial, Smith Thompson, dismissed all charges against the defendants, ordering them freed, because the U.S. lacked jurisdiction given that the Amistad was a Spanish vessel. However, the district court judge who had bound them over for trial, Andrew T. Judson, refused to release the men on the grounds that they were, he felt, Rûíz’s and Montes’s legal property, an issue Thompson hadn’t addressed. His court would now try the men in New Haven. U.S. president Martin Van Buren, courting southern votes, prepared to have the blacks shipped immediately back to Cuba, where they would be killed, should they lose their case. They did not. It was determined that the defendants were captured in Africa at a point in time when in fact international law—specifically, a treaty between Great Britain and Spain—prohibited slavery and the slave trade. While condemning them for their “bloody hands,” Judson thus declared the defendants neither anyone’s slaves nor the property of Spain and therefore free to return to Africa. Van Buren, however, had this decision appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, seven of whose nine justices owned slaves. Among those advocating the prisoners’ position before the court was former president John Quincy Adams, “Old Man Eloquent.” Adams prevailed against the U.S. government; the court ordered the men’s release, citing “[t]he ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice.” It took nearly a year for the 35 survivors to raise the cost for their return to Mendi; they were helped not only by abolitionists but also by black communities throughout the nation. Sengbe Pieh would write to an American friend: “I thank all ‘merican people, for they send Mendi people home. I shall never forget ‘merican people.” Judge Constance Baker Motley has called the Supreme Court’s Amistad decision “the first legal milestone in the long, difficult struggle in the courts by persons of color for equal justice under law.”

Out of this historical web Spielberg has made an admirably sober though thin, pedestrian film. As critic David Walsh has noted, “The African slaves are painted in such heroic colors that very little life comes through the performances of the actors, who are obliged to be relentlessly militant, outraged and pure of heart,” while at the same time, “If social malefactors in real life had evil, cunning and opportunism so obviously stamped on their features, broad layers of the population would have no difficulty, as they unfortunately do, in sorting out their friends from their enemies.” Spielberg’s inclination to reduce everything to blatancy generates in this instance, Walsh says, a “cartoonish” result. This is also the case, of course, with his 1993 Schindler’s List, and, just as he did in that film, Spielberg distorts reality, for instance, by turning the caring, dedicated abolitionist attorney (and future governor of Connecticut) Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey, in yet another dreadful performance) into a fee-chasing real estate attorney who is an ego-deficient young jerk. Similarly, Josiah Willard Gibbs, the Yale professor of ancient languages who helps in the arduous process by which the Mendi were finally able to communicate their story to the courts, is made to look ridiculous by Spielberg—this, a foolish reflex of his own hatred of both hard work and intellectuality rather than an honest reflection on Gibbs. Spielberg cares little about truth.

Nor is he much interested in the African characters, who get lost in the shuffle of white legal maneuvers. Clearly, Spielberg should have contextualized the white experience with the experience of the, first, captives and then prisoners, not vice versa. Amistad thus becomes one more Hollywood film that treats black experience as a footnote to white experience—one more Hollywood film that formally implies, no matter what the text claims, that nonwhites aren’t the human equals of whites.

Djimon Hounsou gives a good superficial performance as “Joseph Cinque”; but imagine how much better a film would have resulted if we had been allowed to see more than the surfaces of these black human beings. On the other hand, Spielberg does no better with his white actors. Anthony Hopkins, in particular, is farcically exaggerated as Adams.

Janusz Kaminski’s color cinematography is subdued to the point of repression. Given the occasion, I do not mind this. But the silly, intrusive music by John Williams, seemingly from the heavens: shameful.

Even setting aside the controversy of its alleged plagiarisms from a black author’s work, Spielberg would have been well advised not to have followed David Franzoni’s script so slavishly. He would have made a better, more humane and significant film had he penetrated the captives’ skin and drawn an intimate portrait of their discombobulated experience in the New World, their suffering, and their infinite desire, like E.T.’s, to go home.

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