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Spielberg Makes Slavery Simple

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 1997

  Movie Critic

Amistad "Amistad" was directed by Steven Spielberg. (DreamWorks)

Steven Spielberg
Morgan Freeman;
Anthony Hopkins;
Djimon Hounsou;
Matthew McConaughey;
Nigel Hawthorne;
David Paymer;
Pete Postlethwaite;
Stellan Skarsgard;
Anna Paquin;
Tomas Milian;
Austin Pendleton
Running Time:
1 hour, 35 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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Steven Spielberg is an entertainment-meister, a ringmaster of thrills, spills and a sort of big-top poignancy. Whether the subject is trucks, sharks, aliens, Lost Boys, dinosaurs or even Polish Jews he'll grab Indiana Jones's bullwhip and render it into one heck of a show, featuring the big (crack!), the scary (whitassh!) and the touching (fetoosh!).

In "Amistad," Spielberg makes an involving, three-ring spectacle out of slavery, as 53 African captives find themselves in a highly politicized tug of war among slave traders, sailors, abolitionists, secessionists, the New Haven, Conn., court, 11-year-old Queen Isabella II of Spain, bumbling president Martin Van Buren and former president John Quincy Adams.

Captured by Spanish traders in 1839, the African -- led by Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) -- have staged a bloody rebellion at sea. But their attempts to steer the Amistad home to Africa take them in the wrong direction. Caught by Americans off the eastern seaboard, the Africans are taken into custody at New Haven, where they are put on trial as murderers and rebels.

Unable to speak the language, the chained, terrified foreigners find themselves at the mercy of the American legal system. Their only allies are abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard), and a lawyer named Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey). Together they mount a morally persuasive case.

But as Cinque and his fellow Africans discover, freedom doesn't come easily, even in the land of liberty. This case seems to be important to just about everyone, including the court of Spain, which believes the Africans are its rightful property; President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), who's intimidated by slavery-supporting Southern legislators; the American sailors who captured Cinque and company off Long Island; and, eventually, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), who knows when to interrupt his gardening to argue a constitutional issue.

How does Spielberg tackle such a vast, powerful and daunting subject? Slavery has a deep resonance, not just because of the deplorable circumstances that made Africans the underclass of American society, but because its aftershock remains an integral part of our culture; heavy stuff for the maker of "Captain Hook."

The director's solution is almost disarmingly simple. The captives--from the Mende, Temne and Kissi tribes of West Africa--are manacled in chains by a patriarchal society. They're unable to communicate because of their language differences. They are powerless. In effect, they are. . .children and aliens. And Spielberg knows his way around both those groups.

You can see this adults-as-children/aliens metaphor in the captives' bewildered expressions as a group of well-meaning, religious New Englanders kneel before them and sing "Amazing Grace." "They're entertainers," says one captive to another, as Spielberg finally represents their comments in subtitles.

"Why do they look so miserable?" wonders the other.

Spielberg is also helped by history, which always tells a good tale. Screenwriter David Franzoni (with uncredited help from Steven Zaillian) based "Amistad" on "Black Mutiny," a historical account of the incident by William A. Owens. And in actor Hounsou, Spielberg has discovered a performer of captivating majesty. Physically imposing and poetically expressive, he exudes pride, sustained fury and a heroic determination to return to his wife and child. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's shots of him--particularly at the beginning when Hounsou feverishly steers the helm of the Amistad against a night sky--often take the breath away.

Unfortunately the usual caveat remains. This is Spielberg's vision of slavery, which means symbolism that makes highway billboards look subtle. When one loincloth-clad captive dies in American captivity, for instance, his body is raised in the air and passed from African hand to hand like a post-crucifixion Christ. There is, too, the requisite Christ-transformation scene--in this case, when the slaves leaf through an illustrated New Testament. Although the movie is moving and even funny in many places, it's also overextended. And composer John Williams's syrupy score practically oozes from your ears on the drive home.

At one point, when Hounsou makes a stuttery attempt to speak English and proclaim his freedom, it may be touching on one level, but it's just a respinning of the "E.T. phone home" line in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." You can almost feel the director looking at the rushes, as the slaves chant their mantra, and thinking, "Yep, nailed that one!" In Spielberg's world, there's nothing so deep, rich and complex that it can't be reduced to mall-movie grist.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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