FREEDOM IS NOT GIVEN. IT IS OUR RIGHT AT BIRTH. BUT THERE ARE SOME MOMENTS WHEN IT MUST BE TAKEN.
It’s a little unsettling to consider that back in the heyday of slavery, one of the issues of practicality was the nature of a slave’s stance with the law. Some places regarded slavery as illegal and all those in its chains were people who were taken against their will. Others saw its slave populace as items, literally with no more significance or legal right than a chair or a lamp. Still others would say that it depends on where they came from. What happens, then, if a boatload of slaves were to rise up and kill their captors? Would you accuse a cow of murder if it killed its owner? Would the issue be as to who owns these now ownerless slaves? Or is it about victims fighting back for the freedom that was taken from them? In 1839, just such a case was brought before the US courts as the “cargo” of a Spanish slave-ship broke free from their chains and killed those that chained them.
Based on the true story of the mutiny aboard the slave ship, Amistad, and the subsequent courtroom drama as the American lawyers fought for the slave’s freedom and return home. The case would be a watershed moment for America-Spain relations, and reveal the political motivations behind the North-South conflict that would lead to the American Civil War.
David Franzoni’s script is a work of marvellous texture and depth. It draws on all of the emotive aspects of the story very well, but couples them with a great courtroom drama, and some wonderful characters. It avoids the pitfall of having the slaves, so often regarded as nothing but property, register as nothing more than a solid, indiscernible block. It has at least one real personality in there to identify with, perhaps even two or three. It also has a great dexterity with language. Communication is a great concern for those involved. The imprisoned slaves of the Amistad (Spanish for ‘friendship’) don’t speak the language of their captors, nor their attorneys. English, Mende and Spanish are all language barriers that these characters, and thus the script, must overcome in order to communicate effectively. Until a translator is found, it falls to body language, gesture and images to carry the weight of the initial tentative conversations. Motivations, strengths and weaknesses are considered well, which does enhance the drama to a fine degree. That, in the film, John Quincy Adams still struggles to live up to the example set by his father, former President John Adams, is used very well. That a relatively minor character like Judge Coglin gets some depth, his Catholic faith being used against him, is also refreshing. Indeed, it is obvious that care has been taken to give some balance to many of these characters.
Spielberg, as he would do, makes a great use of the story and his cast. He has always shown himself to be someone to take tackle historical issues with a sense of responsibility, showing a desire to respectfully explore the past and relate them to the present. Here, he utilises the same mix of frankness and sensitivity that served him so well on Schindler’s List. He doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the events (a story recounted by Cinque on a previous slave-ship, The Tecora, is indeed horrifying), but neither does it linger on them. Spielberg is wise enough to know that he need not exploit the pain of these characters, that he need only show you a little of such things for you to be affected, and then moves along. Indeed, he also shows a maturity in his decision to forgo his usually sweeping, fast-paced openings for something slower, but altogether more appropriate. His visual sensibility remains strong, catching such things as a recurring image of Cinque trying to follow the sun, struggling towards the light.
The cast assembled for this film is astounding. Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, Stellan Skarsgård, Anna Paquin, Djimon Hounsou, Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, Pete Postlethwaite, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and many more besides that you’d recognise the instant you saw them. This superb cast, along with the sprawling nature of the story and characters, is really set to ensure that no one person is given The Lead. Everyone supports everyone, so it’s really anyone’s game to stand out. Indeed, two stand out remarkably. Djimon Hounsou is excellent as Cinque. Due to the language barrier that rests against us as much as it does the other characters, much of what we get from Cinque comes just from his presence and his expression. Thankfully, Hounsou, a former model, has a firm screen presence, proud, intense and strong. He carries every bit of the emotional weight of himself and the other men and women from the Amistad. The other performance of great note is Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams. His Adams has every appearance of an awkward old man, scattered and tired, more concerned with his flowers than matters of State. However, he is more than capable of rising to any challenge set before him, carried off with a dignity and erudition that is really rather inspiring. It’s Hopkins who is given the most singularly wordy scene, a full eleven-minute long monologue on the subject of freedom and all the things it guarantees. Hopkins delivers it, not with over-dramatic scenery chewing, but with the true greatness that we know he’s is capable of. Others carry themselves admirably, with another mention for Pete Postlethwaite, who makes great impression with the relatively small role he inhabits.
The film is a fine one, though it should be understood that it does owe as much to fabrication as to historical document. The deviations from fact are somewhat regular, and can have something of an effect how some characters are portrayed. It works well within the context of the film, creating a tangible sense of tension and drama, but the fact is that the real people being represented don't always get their due. The character of Theodore Joadson, played by Morgan Freeman, is a fictitious creation, essentially brought in to present a former slave, now well-to-do free man fighting for the abolition of slavery, and his reaction to walking through the Amistad, haunted by the chains and scratches and blood smears that cover the lower decks. The scene has some poignancy, but is also somewhat superfluous. I get the feeling that the part was included more at the behest of Spielberg, perhaps simply wanting to work with Morgan Freeman, but more likely to compensate for a backlash against his The Color Purple, which was criticised for its negative portrayal of black men. As such, space has been created for the character at the expense of others, such as Professor Gibbs, who comes across as rather inept instead of the competent linguist that he really was.
Also, the attempts to draw the events into a context more identifiable to its contemporary audience, particularly American audiences, does create a more compelling sense of motivation for characters, but this is also at odds with the facts. President Martin Van Buren, played by Nigel Hawthorne, comes off as rather weak-willed, a typical politician more concerned with re-election than fighting for the cause of freedom. That he encroaches on legal proceedings for fear of a war (the Civil War) that would not come to pass for another two decades presents something of difficulty for a film purporting to represent history.
However, this is not a problem unique to Amistad, but something that all historical films must contend with: historical fact vs. dramatic storytelling. Many would argue that the allowance for alteration of fact lies in proportion to good storytelling – it’s okay to change some facts, so long as they make for a much more compelling story. Plus, if the spirit of the piece remains essentially respectful to the heart of the matter, then we can’t judge it too harshly. Alternately, many would say that any kind of alteration of fact is dishonest and that if the true story really were so compelling, then alteration would not be required. Otherwise, you may as well just make up a completely new tale and say it was "inspired by...". I’m certainly not going to try and settle this argument, I can only speak to what impact this film may have, or at least had on me.
I believe that Amistad is a very good film, an important film, and one that should be seen. Spielberg was pretty much preaching to the choir if he sought to convince me that slavery was bad. I’m already with him on that. If there is one overall concern with this film, and many others of Spielberg’s oeuvre, it’s to hold up examples of good people that others can learn from. No iconoclast, Spielberg knows the value of a hero, particularly from the past, and seeks to bring this idealism to the world. What Amistad really does is try to shine a light on instances in the past where a few have fought for a just cause in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s not really important as to whether or not John Quincy Adams actually had Cinque over to his house for tea. It’s just important to know that John Quincy Adams spoke with dignity and passion for Cinque’s freedom.
Amistad is very affecting film, well-written, directed and acted throughout, with particular credit going to Anthony Hopkins and Djimon Hounsou. There may be a consideration in the fact that it does take more than a few historical liberties, which does have an effect on characterisation somewhat, but it really takes little away from the dramatic nature of the film. It remains a poignant, emotive, occasionally difficult watch, but still an important one.