It's a tough act to follow, sweeping the Oscars with a hallowed epic about a redeemed Nazi who saves doomed Jews from the ovens. But Steven Spielberg, all grown up now and moving steadily forward, doesn't disappoint. With Amistad, Hollywood's master of narrative boldly plumbs some other heavyweight issues--the enduring American sin of slavery and, as Anthony Hopkins's vivid John Quincy Adams puts it in one of the great courtroom orations in movie history, "the nature of man."
This incredibly moving drama about an actual 1839 slave-ship mutiny and the three shattering trials that followed has already stirred controversy. A thorny plagiarism suit threatened to delay the picture's release, and some Afrocentrists are sure to be put off by its vision of white nineteenth-century lawyers giving voice to the righteousness of black rebellion.
Such is history. In the absence of Johnnie Cochran, it falls to Morgan Freeman's fervid abolitionist, Joadson, to a green young attorney played (rather too eagerly) by Matthew McConaughey, then to Hopkins's aged and magisterial ex-President Adams to at last win freedom for four dozen Africans who break free from the bloody horrors of the Middle Passage, kill their captors aboard the Spanish vessel La Amistad and are eventually collared by the U.S. Navy.
Still, this is no mere love song to Caucasian liberalism. The film's most powerful presence is Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), the proud, intelligent leader of the uprising, from whose spirit and humanity the American lawyers draw all their energies--despite huge gulfs of language, culture and sensibility.
"What words did you use?" noble Cinque asks (through a crucial interpreter) after the case is finally won, stirringly, in the U.S. Supreme Court. "Yours," Adams answers.
For Hounsou, a native of Benin, West Africa, this is an amazing feature-film debut, full of subtle colorations and brilliant setpieces, most notably his cry for freedom, in heartbreaking broken English, amid the alien terror of an American courtroom. Previously he's been seen only in music videos by the likes of Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson ("Love Will Never Do Without You").
With the coming Civil War looming over the proceedings, Spielberg and screenwriter David Franzoni also conjure up a vivid gallery of villains: President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), who tried to mollify Southern slave states by interfering in the case; Spain's mindless child-queen, Isabella (Anna Paquin), who lodged a spurious claim for return of her lost "property"; and the assorted bigots and opportunists hovering around the edges of the gallery.
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In the end, though, this eloquent and multi-layered film--dare we dub it Schindler's Slaves?--belongs to Cinque and the other Africans, out of chains and up into the light. But that's not the end of the story, of course. Spielberg's references, subtle and outright, to the divisions that still plague the races in America are painful and profound--none more so, perhaps, than the resonant story about how Cinque once delivered his fellow villagers back in Sierra Leone from a killer lion by hurling a stone at its head. Other lions, Spielberg reminds us in this potent drama, are still on the loose.
Screenplay by David Franzoni, from the book Black Mutiny, by William Owens. Directed by Steven Spielberg. With Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman and Matthew McConaughey.