Amistad by Steven Spielberg
Amistad by Steven Spielberg
In 1839, the slave ship Amistad set sail from Cuba to America. During the long trip, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) leads the slaves in an unprecedented uprising. They are then held prisoner in Connecticut, and their release becomes the subject of heated debate. Freed slave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) wants Cinque and the others exonerated and recruits property lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to help his case. Eventually, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) also becomes an ally.
Extract from review
“Amistad,” like Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” is not simply an argument against immorality. We do not need movies to convince us of the evil of slavery and the Holocaust. Both films are about the ways good men try to work realistically within an evil system to spare a few of its victims. Schindler’s strategies are ingenious and suspenseful, and lead to a more gripping and powerful film than the legal tactics in “Amistad,” where lawyers in powdered wigs try to determine the origin of men whose language they do not speak.
The heart of the film, really, is in Anthony Hopkins’ powerful performance as old John Quincy Adams, who speaks for 11 minutes in defense of the defendants, and holds the courtroom (and the audience) spellbound. It is one of the great movie courtroom speeches. But in praising it, I touch on the film’s great weakness: It is too much about the law and not enough about the victims.
By Fred Harvey
The History Place
Amistad, the new film by Steven Spielberg, is a masterpiece of film making providing a thoroughly rewarding entertainment and learning experience.
The film is a fictional portrayal of events surrounding the successful revolt in 1839 by a group of Africans headed for slavery in the Americas.
Spielberg begins the story as 53 Africans on board the ship Amistad stage a bloody revolt and then force two surviving crew members to sail back to Africa.
The crew members trick the Africans into believing they are sailing home, all the while going no further than the eastern seaboard of the U.S. After two months of sailing a haphazard course, and desperately low on food and water, they are captured by a U.S. Navy ship near Connecticut.
Now the Africans must cope with the U.S. legal system which generally regards blacks as property. But if they can somehow prove they are from Africa and were stolen into slavery, they might have a chance for freedom, since the African slave trade has been outlawed by this time.
The cause of the Africans is taken up by abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and a young attorney named Roger Baldwin (Mathew McConaughey). The bewildered, infuriated African revolt leader Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) must learn to communicate with these men who themselves are bewildered by the Africans. Here, Spielberg uses little moments quite well to make this meaningful as the two Americans, and we in the audience, begin to bond with this human who at first seemed so different.
This is film making at its best, moving us, making us aware, and then helping us realize, if only for a moment, the Africans are not different, they share a universal desire to be free.
And surprisingly, they do prevail in court and are ordered to be set free. But in a nation steadily heading toward civil war over the issue of slavery, this case has taken on huge symbolic meaning, and Southern slave owners are not about to sit back and let this happen.
As a result, the case heads for the U.S. Supreme Court at the request of President Martin Van Buren, a slavery supporter, who is running for re-election. Former President John Quincy Adams, played masterfully by Anthony Hopkins, finally agrees to get involved although he had been asked from the beginning to help. Here, once again, Spielberg uses little moments — as Cinque spots an African violet among Adams’ plant collection and smiles, then breathes in the aroma of the plant and the aroma of freedom back home.
Cinque and Adams, seemingly worlds apart, bond in spirit. When Adams appears before the Supreme Court, he delivers a quiet, dignified argument for freedom with the power to set men free, both then and now.