Amistad (1997), Cert 15.

Director - Stephen Spielberg.

Writer - David H. Franzoni.

Starring - Djimon Hounsou, Mathew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Hawthorne, Pete Posthlethwaite & Stellan Skarsgard.

 

Premise - It's 1839 and the slave ship La Amistad is overrun by its cargo and the majority of its crew slaughtered. When the ship lands on American soil the slaves face a fight through both the US's courts and its political red tape to claim their rightful freedom.

It's taken me five years to finally see Amistad (thanks mainly to poorly stocked video stores and continuously clashing TV schedules) and itís also the last Spielberg film I had left to see. Was it worth the wait? Yes, I would say so, Amistad is a powerful film (like you expect anything less from Mr Spielberg?) that moves the viewer as well as educating them around early 19th century American history (to which I was blissfully ignorant).

Straight from the bat we can see that this is not 'Indiana Jones' Spielberg that made this film, but 'Shindlers List' Spielberg. The opening montage of the slaveís insurrection is brutal and bloody, never shirking at showing the full gory details of the event. It's these scenes, showing the slaves before they reach American soil that I found most interesting and ultimately the most affecting. The beginning insurrection and the flashback scene halfway through that depicts the slaves being captured and then later on the infamous 'Tacoma' are some of the most brutal and emotionally charged scenes that I have seen in a film in a long, long time.

Outside of these scenes Amistad falters quite a bit. For the most part the film is nothing more than a courtroom drama, like a John Grisham movie set in early 19th century America. The subject matter does rises Amistad above the thousand different Grisham films and all their clones that came out in the late 90's, but I just don't find these types of film all that interesting. The endless back and forth between defence and prosecution can become monotonous and especially in Amistad, since the same case is effectively tried three times.

In all fairness each trial is given added weight by the threat of Civil War that weighs over the proceedings. However, since we know that civil war did indeed happen, the outcome of the film is NEVER in question and takes slightly from the tension of these courtroom scenes. Like I said however, the brutal scenes outside of the courtroom made up for their generic nature. Also helping the film is the outstanding cast on offer.

Boasting premier talent from both sides of the Atlantic, Amistad has more that it's fair share of fine performances. The best of the bunch being unknown actor Djimon Hounsou as the unofficial leader of the slaves (or Amistad Africans as they are referred to in the film) Cinque. Hounsou spends the vast majority of the film speaking in another language (Mende) and this adds to the realism and feel of the movie ten fold. Because of this he has to act more physically then the other actors, you can see the frustration on his face as he tries to get the Americans to understand him. I haven't seen Hounsou in any other film aside Amistad and I will have to find out what this clearly talented individual went on to do.

Mathew McCounaughey was a hot property back in 1997, he was considered to be the 'next big thing' as far as young Hollywood was concerned and he seemingly had the talent to pull it off. This film seems to support that theory as he gives a bravado performance that makes you wonder if it's the same man who has gone on to make dross like 'The Wedding Planner' and 'Reign Of Fire'. His Baldwin is a young lawyer who initially sees the case as nothing more than a pay day, but as the movie goes on he grows attached to the case and the plight of the Africans.

Elsewhere you have the likes of Anthony Hopkins who must be under a ton of make up to look like the aging ex-president John Quincy Adams. Hopkins rarely gives a bad performance (ever?) and Amistad is no exception. Pete Postlethwaite is a British actor I like and it's always nice to see him in a big budget film, I liked his accent as well. The late Nigel Hawthorn plays current president Martin Van Buren (I appreciated that being a Seinfeld fan) and again sports a convincing accent.

The big puzzle in the film as far as the actors go however is Morgan Freeman. Freeman is a consummate actor, we are all aware of that. However, given the nature of the films subject matter and that of his character (an ex slave who is now educated and holds a position of respect and some importance) it's strange that he should be such a peripheral character. I would have thought that his Theodore Joadson would have taken a more active role in the plight of the Africans, but as far as I could tell all he did was stand about in the background and do very little, if anything. Since the movie is based on a true story I can only assume that this is how the real Joadson acted, but I find it strange.

Spielberg pulls out all the usual stops to drag an emotional response from the audience and for the most part they work. The scenes on the two slave ships are dramatic and very moving; however the courtroom scenes seem flat by comparison. The highlights being Anthony Hopkins stirring monologue in the final hearing and a British Naval officers unwavering testimony when being cross examined by Postlethwaite (incidentally, it's nice to see the Brits being portrayed as good guys for a change). If the film had spent more time with the Africans and less time in the courtroom than it would have been an outstanding film. As it stands the powerful slave scenes and the outstanding cast save it from being merely an average film.

 

7/10 for Amistad.

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