The only thing Judge Erich Asperschlager will be remembered for is his middle name.
Our review of Amistad, published May 27th, 1999, is also available.
"Give us…us free!"
Four years after Schindler's List, Spielberg turned his lens on America's troubled racial past with Amistad. The story of a slave revolt at sea that led to a Supreme Court case was brought to Spielberg by actress Debbie Allen. He was wary to make another movie about slavery after the mixed reception to 1985's The Color Purple but he agreed—perhaps to wash the taste of The Lost World out of his mouth. Amistad was a return to form for the director. Too bad it was swept aside by his own Saving Private Ryan a year later. Amistad has gone largely overlooked in the decade and a half since, which is a shame. 2013's 12 Years a Slave garnered critical acclaim and a Best Picture win for its unflinching depiction of slavery. Amistad isn't the same kind of film, but it has as much to say about this shameful period in America's past. Amistad's Blu-ray release is the perfect opportunity to reevaluate one of the best Spielberg films of the past 20 years.
Facts of the Case
In 1839 off of Cuba, African slaves on board the ship La Amistad broke free and killed all but two of their captors. They tried to sail home, but ended up off the East Coast of the United States, where the Africans were captured and found themselves in the middle of a legal battle between Spain, the navy, the surviving Amistad crew, and abolitionists who wanted to see the prisoners set free.
Plenty of movies have been made about the African-American experience during the Civil War and its aftermath. Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave approached the subject with a horror filmmaker's eye, poking at the raw nerve of slavery with horrific imagery. Amistad follows a more traditional Hollywood plot structure. It has heroes and villains, purpose, and an uplifting message. That doesn't make it any less powerful than McQueen's film. The screenplay, written by David Franzoni, casts a wider net. It's about not only southern slavery, but the illegal West African slave trade, the abolition movement, and early American politics.
At the center of the story are the African prisoners who break free and slaughter the Amistad crew. Unlike the beaten-down characters in 12 Years, the slave leader Cinque and his fellow Africans are proud and defiant. Their fight for freedom foreshadows not only the impending Civil War, but the Civil Rights movement that delivered on the promise of abolition a century later.
Critics of Amistad harp on its historical inaccuracies, as if a film's success should be gauged by how closely it adheres to the facts. Some of Amistad's changes are there to tweak the drama, but most of the choices serve to expand the themes beyond the La Amistad case. For example, the spectre of the Civil War that scares Martin Van Buren and spurs John Quincy Adams is there for the benefit of hindsight. The Amistad incident had little bearing on the march to war twenty years later, but the liberation of these African prisoners is a taste of the fight and victory to come. Franzoni and Spielberg take liberties, but with purpose. Amistad isn't a documentary. It uses this unique case as a platform to talk about larger issues. Adams' speech about "what the Africans are" versus "who they are" is more than a clever turn of phrase. It's the distinction that allowed Americans to see slaves as property instead of people.
Amistad is told from a variety of perspectives. Characters come into play and recede into the background over the film's two and a half hours. The prisoners first draw the attention of abolitionists Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) and Joadson (Morgan Freeman), whose cause is represented by an ineffectual chorus of pious whites the Africans assume are entertainers. They hand the case over to Matthew McConaughey's Baldwin, who uses his skills as a property lawyer to build a defense that almost wins the slaves' freedom. Even he eventually steps back so that Anthony Hopkins' John Quincy Adams can make the final stand in front of the Supreme Court. The film is full of great performances by world-class actors, not only Freeman, McConaughey, Hopkins, and Skarsgard, but Pete Postlethwaite, David Paymer, Anna Paquin, and 12 Years star Chiwetel Ejiofor. It's almost too full. Spielberg does a fine job packing a lot into the film, but it feels overstuffed. Amistad is less a cohesive story than a series of chapters: the revolt, the first court case, the second court case, the slave fortress flashback, and the lead-up to the Supreme Court showdown. It all adds up, and little is wasted, but there's a lot going on.
The chaos of the story swirls around two characters: Anthony Hopkins' Adams and Djimon Hounsou's Cinque. They are the film's secret weapons. Hopkins' John Quincy Adams is an unassuming political giant with a sharp mind and sharper tongue. He is like Chekov's gun, introduced in the first act so he can come in and blow everyone away in the third. Between the characterization and legendary actor, it feels like Spielberg's trial run for Daniel Day Lewis's role in Lincoln. Then-newcomer Hounsou is his equal, with more riding on his performance. As the leader of the African group, he is asked to play warrior, victim, and quiet revolutionary. It's through his eyes we see the horror of the slave trade—a brutal sequence as graphic as anything in 12 Years a Slave—and the frustrating, petty politics that held back racial progress for far too long.
Amistad comes to Blu-ray with a 1.85 1080p transfer that is true to Janusz Kaminski's lush cinematography. It's a faithful cinematic image, with fine grain, natural colors, and minimal edge enhancement. Close-ups are especially sharp, ideal for appreciating the period detail. This is a film that runs the tonal gamut from sun-bleached to deeply shadowed, and the transfer delivers on all counts. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is immersive and open, balancing John Williams' sweeping score, dialogue, and powerful sound design.
The only disappointment here are the bonus features. Gone are the "production notes" and "bios" from the DVD. All you get is the trailer in HD and "The Making of Amistad" (26:33)—a standard-def, full frame featurette made at the time of the film's release. The archival interviews and set footage are informative and entertaining, even if they don't dig very deep.
12 Years a Slave is definitive in the way it depicts the horror of the slave experience, but it is limited in scope. Amistad takes a more traditional Hollywood approach to the subject, but in doing so it covers more ground—not only the despicable cruelty of slave traders and their sympathizers, but the powerful determination of Africans and African-Americans to break free and claim their human rights. It's a shame this movie doesn't have a better reputation. It's too well made, well-acted, and has too many important things to say to be forgotten.
This story deserves to be "told and retold." Not guilty!
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