Amistad is the last film in Steven Spielberg's corpus I'm visiting for the first time. Surrounded by the more lauded dramatic achievements of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, not to mention colored by certain feelings of its preachiness among those who saw it, Spielberg's middle drama of the '90s never appeared on my radar as anything other than a faint blip. But just as I got to see Always through fresh eyes that countered a number of my expectations for that film, so too did Amistad prove far more than the half-forgotten mainstream consensus would have me believe.
In fact, Amistad might well be the most consistent of Spielberg's triumvirate of '90s prestige pictures. It lacks the overwhelming emotional impact of Schindler's List and the visceral power of Saving Private Ryan, but it makes up for these shortcomings by sidestepping the bouts of moral ambiguity and questionable "mainstreamification" of its serious themes. Amistad does have a bit of typical writing in its construction, but by and large it proves a deftly written, fleetingly problematic return to the issue Spielberg did not treat with full sincerity and conviction with The Color Purple: slavery and racism.
In its own way, the opening segment of Amistad is every bit as brilliant, dynamic and self-contained as the D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Keeping cinematographer Kimenski on board, Spielberg frame the uprising on the titular ship in shocking terms. It starts with extreme close-ups of the face of Cinqué (Djimon Honsou), a slave bound for Cuba, breathing laboriously and clearly struggling. Cut to another extreme close-up of his fingers scraping at the wood of his bench in an attempt to free the nail, the jaw-clenching squeaks across wood deafening in the silence of the rocking ship at night. Lightning flashes (divorced from any masking thunder) illuminate chipped fingernails and bleeding tips. The suspense is as unbearable as any shot of Jews hiding from Nazis.
At last, Cinqué frees himself and releases the other captives, who storm the ship and slaughter the Spanish crew. The same lightning that showed us the slave freeing himself also reveal yet cover up the bloodbath. Spielberg shows glimpses of the violence, flashes of beastly faces in fearsome war yells. The fury is terrible to behold, and Cinqué only just manages to stop himself from killing the final two crew members, aware that he needs them to steer him home. The whole sequence is one of Spielberg's finest moments, playing on his love of Judeo-Christian imagery (of slaves coming out of bondage via the removal of a nail in wood that has direct Christian connotations) and his ability to make something visceral out of moral drama. Were it not such a pure demonstration of humanity's primal urge to survive and assert free will, one might call the animalistic visions of rampaging blacks at least subconsciously racist. Compared to the borderline stereotypical posturing of the actors in The Color Purple, these depictions are prouder and more defiant.
Such depictions are also clarified through the film's later structure, which does not move in easy chronological order but contextualizes what we see in retrospect so we never glory in what's happening. Even when it seems all is won and even the characters cheer in victory, Spielberg is waiting to pull back and reveal the full scope of the issue at hand. It's a clear response to those who felt he focused on the "success story" of the Schindler Jews at the expense of the six million less-fortunate souls.
The rest of the film relies on considerably less showy direction than the opening -- it is a courtroom drama, after all -- but Spielberg manages to maintain his usual penchant for visual storytelling with more static shots. The first 20 minutes or so contain nary a word of English and few subtitles, placing the heft of narrative building solely on Spielberg's camera. With nothing more than the right distance and angle, Spielberg manages to eke out not only what's happening but an emotional current for it. Cinqué spares the two officers and orders the one who understands Mende to turn around and head back to Africa. We see Cinqué's pride and leadership skills as he interacts with other Mende, but we also get a glimpse of how out of his element he is: when he briefly plays with the ship's helm he seems almost childlike. Slowly, the director drops hints of trouble: food runs scarce and the slave ship keeps sailing past vessels with white people on them. At last, when they run aground and some of the rebel slaves go to fetch water, it becomes clear they couldn't be stopping on land at all if they were really on their way back over the Atlantic.
Sure enough, the slaves are captured by an American frigate and placed in jail in Connecticut. When they arrive, the white prisoners protest having to share so much as the same room with the slaves, who are soon brought to court for what promises to be an open-and-shut case. When complications arise, they are not over the issue of whether what the slaves did was justifiable; it is merely a question of whether the Africans are pirates or property. A sub-question: whose property are they? Spielberg has displayed a certain rose-colored view of America from time to time, and his moderate Hollywood liberalism has allowed him to play both sides of the fence with impunity for decades. But here he at last fully confronts that which he only gave a glancing blow 12 years earlier: the nation's history of slavery and racism.
I felt that The Color Purple's chief shortcoming was in its over-reliance of cheap humor that never meshed with the moments of sincerity and pain. Yet I never felt the heaping load of comedy injected into Amistad detracted from the film. Here, Spielberg and writer David Franzoni base the humor in situational comedy instead of the farce of The Color Purple. Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), the ambulance(-cart)-chasing lawyer who agrees to defend the Africans for a pair of abolitionist journalists (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård), tries to communicate with the slaves, but the language barrier leads to minutes worth of mishaps and confusion. Even when a basic form of primitive gestures sort out a handful of problems between him and Cinqué, the two still make for a fine double act. Once a translator (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Royal Navy officer who joined the fleet after being freed by Britain's anti-slavery forces, enters and tells Cinqué's story, however, the laughs die in the throat.
In fairness, Amistad does have one too many Stanley Kramer-esque lapses of moralizing for its own good. The obvious arc of Baldwin from a brilliant-but-detached lawyer into a crusader for human rights is all too predictable, and the simplification of white characters into good and true liberals and frothing bigots who for some reason gather by the hundreds to jeer blacks for killing people from another country is tedious. Martin Van Buren gets thrown under the bus as a racist and conniver, leaving out the much more complex (and relevant) moral confusion of those politicians who did not support slavery but felt it necessary to keep the peace and avoid war. Amistad glosses over this hairy situation by making Van Buren as loathsome as possible and never giving the threat of war the gravity it deserves, especially in hindsight of the horrific costs of the Civil War.
But there are also flecks of some of Spielberg's most intelligent and thoughtful filmmaking. If he simplifies the bigoted antagonists, he at least explores the gray within the abolitionist cause: Tappan (Skarsgård), who came to anti-slavery through religion, sees value in martyrdom and would be willing to sacrifice the lives of the Africans if it meant stunning the public into action. He balks at Baldwin's strategy -- to render the matter of property null and void by proving the slaves came from Africa and therefore could not be taken as slaves following the criminalization of importing foreign slaves -- because it lacks a moral statement. He compares Baldwin's idea to Christ calling someone to get him off on a technicality, to which Baldwin replies, "But Christ lost."
Spielberg frames the racism in horrendously blunt terms, to the point that a few words of dismissal in the courtroom shock and disgust almost as much as flashbacks of murders, torture and rapes at the hands of Portuguese and Spanish sailors. Through the translator, Cinqué tells his story and of the atrocities he witnessed to Baldwin, and when the camera returns from his reverie he's in the courtroom relating this to the prosecution, U.S. Attorney William S. Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite), who instantly calls Cinqué's story a fabrication. He never once views Cinqué and the others as anything but wayward property, even when the African leader moves everyone else with his pidgin chant "Give us us free!" But really, no one in the court truly takes Cinqué's story seriously until a representative of the Royal Navy's anti-slavery troops, a white man, corroborates the slave's story. The film stresses this irony, laying percussive African music and mournful Western vocalization over Cinqué's flashbacks but reserving the somber, stunned chords for the mere words the naval officer says. And isn't it funny that those white people so disgusted by the very idea of blacks wear nothing but ink-black cloaks and clothes?
Amistad represents an autocritique of the traits Spielberg displayed in Schindler's List, even if, as I've argued, the seemingly problematic issues of that movie smooth out remarkably well on closer study. Schindler's List moved methodically through its horrors, to the point that one would be tempted to cheer if it ended Inlgourious Basterds style with Schinder's Jews machine-gunning Hitler and his companions. Here, he opens with an act of horror that later proves to be scarcely inadequate a show of rage. Yes, the audience will likely end up supporting the slaughter of Spaniards, but by putting so much distance between the outcome and the motivation, Spielberg takes all the "enjoyment" (for want of a better word) out of it and makes it something you think about it retrospect. And when it reaches what seems to be its triumphant climax, Spielberg reveals we've got another hour to go, enough time to let it sink in that, even if these slaves emerge triumphant and go home free men, that will barely put a dent on the slave trade (the illegality of which is ignored by everyone until a court is forced to deal with the issue), and their victory won't bring back the scores who died on their very ship from starvation and murder.
But the most surprising aspect of the film is Spielberg's harsh take on American politics and the notion of the American/Western ideal. John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), former president and defeated old man, putters about the film for the first two thirds until Baldwin prevails upon him successfully to help the Africans when Van Buren kicks the case to the Supreme Court despite the issue seemingly being resolved. Adams worries about standing in the shadow of his father, a worry confirmed by the dismissive views of other politicians. Yet it eventually becomes clear to the man that the only way to build his own legacy separate from that of his father is to help the document John Adams helped write achieve its full potential instead of being held back by the same sort of reactionary fools who hobbled it in the first place.
Hopkins wisely chooses to play Quincy less as a crotchety old man embittered by his perceived failure than as a resigned idealist. His climactic speech is powerful, all the more so for incorporating Cinqué's own words as a sign of respect and equality, but Hopkins adds labored breaths and grunts under even the most solemn proclamation to ground the moment. When he finishes, no one applauds. They're too busy truly thinking about what was just said.
Its length may be unjustified, it oversimplifies history and some moments fall flat -- the parallels of Cinqué summoning the spirits of his ancestors and Quincy dealing with his own progenitor have too much of a "we're not so different after all!" feel, and the brief clip of Civil War action in the closing montage is embarrassing -- but Amistad deserves more credit than I was willing to give it going into the film. It gets one last parting shot in the final text scroll, noting that Cinqué returned to find his wife and child gone, themselves likely sold in slavery, a reminder that the significant victory he and the others enjoyed only made a small blip on the radar. But it was right, and that is the point Amistad makes even as it acknowledges the darkness of the full scope.