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'Amistad': History Unshackled

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 1997


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's powerful "Amistad" again demonstrates the director's flair for bringing lost worlds alive, this time by reawakening the monstrous epoch of antebellum America.

But the lost world of 1839, as painstakingly re-created here, is a jungle that breeds a different sort of cruelty as diplomats, Cabinet members and, yes, the president look the other way while Spanish slavers traffic in human cargo.

As the movie unflinchingly illustrates, the slave ship La Amistad's captives endured heinous treatment as they journeyed from Africa to the Caribbean. They were so weak and hungry that few were capable of walking, much less staging a revolt. Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) was among the exceptions, and "Amistad" is an account of his quest for freedom and its repercussions, which are with us to this day.

Cinque desperately wants to go home and he uses all his resources, strength and ingenuity to get back to West Africa. Initially, his only weapon is a nail that he manages to dig from the deck of the slave ship. But it's all he needs to loose his own shackles, then set his fellow captives free.

Led by Cinque, the 53 Africans arm themselves, slay all but two of the crew and reclaim their liberty on a stormy night off the coast of Cuba. Illumined by flashes of lightning, the rebellion becomes one with the storm, raging, wet with blood and rain and just as quickly over.

Shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski of "Schindler's List," that sequence and another that catalogues the atrocities of the Middle Passage are the movie's strongest, yet others make their points just as clearly, some with broad humor, others with quiet eloquence. There are windy moments aplenty too, for, by and large, "Amistad" is a courtroom drama.

Without navigational skills, the rebels must rely on the two surviving Spaniards, who pretend to be bound for Africa when they are actually sailing along the Eastern seaboard. Captured and taken to New Haven, Conn., the Africans are jailed and tried for murder and piracy.

When some abolitionists, a dour group all in black, come to sing hymns outside the jail, the Africans don't know what to make of them at first and decide they can only be entertainers, albeit mighty glum ones. Initially, they also mistake their shabbily dressed young attorney (Matthew McConaughey) for a "dung scraper."

With his mutton chops and shabby period costuming, McConaughey looks more as if he ought to be kicking up his heels in a production of "Oliver!" than arguing in New England courtrooms. He's not alone in looking out of place -- even the formidable Anthony Hopkins seems vaguely distracted as John Quincy Adams. He is still wonderfully entertaining as the foxy if dotty elder statesman who comes out of retirement to argue the captives' case before the Supreme Court.

"Amistad" boasts a star-spangled cast that includes Nigel Hawthorne as pro-slavery President Martin Van Buren, Anna Paquin as the pubescent Queen Isabella of Spain, and Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard as abolitionists who champion the Africans' cause. Though Freeman has a smallish part, he leaves an indelible impression. As he searches the Amistad's dank hold for evidence, he's staggered by the chains and bloodstains, but most of all by the ghosts from his past. Hounsou, a West African model with beauty and presence but no acting experience, carries much of the movie on his broad shoulders with surprising skill and strength. His is one of only a few African characters, however, who emerge from the rest. And he emerges with dignity intact even when obliged to become teary-eyed upon sniffing an African violet (which has no scent) in Adams's greenhouse.

Like the characters in Spielberg's most recent movies, these aren't as developed as they might be. On the other hand, there's a cloud of people moving through the story, which comes to symbolize the division between the North and South. All things being equal, this complex tale is more ideally suited to a miniseries.

There are some corny touches, though it seems petty to quibble in the face of such a heartfelt effort. Without Spielberg's conscience and clout, Cinque's story might never have been resurrected from our forgotten archives. With prodding from the film's indefatigable producer, Debbie Allen, he's given all of us a missing piece of our collective past.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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