Amistad (1997)


I can’t tell if Amistad is a good movie.  It’s a serious movie, sure, but serious doesn’t always mean good.  Spielberg’s trajectory as a filmmaker feels like it’s going from pure entertainment with undertones of seriousness to a lecture about the history of the world with an occasional joke thrown in.  He used to be the fun and crazy professor who captured your imagination, and now he’s been called out by the school board and forced to tone it down.

This movie is about a group of slaves that slaughter their captors (most of them) and are then punished when they are eventually captured.  There is a legal case to determine what to do with the slaves, the mystery being that know one really knows where they’re from, and this is a complication because certain areas have already abolished slavery.

It’s a very long and talk-heavy movie, which is crazy because the opening sequence is incredibly brutal.  The rest of the film is like an episode of Law and Order: Jury Selection but less interesting.  Okay, so this really is a serious movie, but it never felt like anything more than character types.  The move really did feel more instructional than engaging.  It could have been an episode of something from the History channel.

I guess I just can’t stand these types of films that feel overly preachy.  I get it slavery’s bad, you don’t need to tell us that.  In the opening scene, we’re shown how messed up and disgusting slavery is.  Djimon Hounsou plays Cinque, the chief of the pack of slaves, and the first shot of the film is an uncomfortably close up angle on his face in the dark.  We then see that he is struggling to loosen a nail from a plank in the ship, cutting up his fingers in the process.  The shot distance, shot length and the sound design make this scene both engaging and a little too intense.  It’s like something out of Schindler’s List and it worked.  But most of the film follows white men in wigs debating in a court of law.  It was pretty boring.

At the very least, this movie did not need to be over two and a half hours long, for the love of god learn to trim it down.  There’s a long detour in the middle in which, after Roger Baldwin, the lawyer  (Matthew McConaughey) finds a communicator to help facilitate conversation between him and Cinque, he learns about Cinque’s story.  The movie is very heavy-handed about learning who the slaves are as people.  Again, good point but we know.  Movies like this feel like the filmmakers are letting the audience pat themselves on the back “because we don’t participate in slave trading, we’re good people.”  It’s annoying after a certain point, and that point was pretty early in the film.

Anyways, there’s a long sequence in the middle of the film in which we’re shown Cinque’s journey, and it felt like it was thrown in there because Spielberg thought the story on its own was getting a little stale, and he wanted to show more violence.

The violence isn’t bad, after all slavery is disgusting so to show the brutality of what went on (like the brutality of the Holocaust) isn’t misguided.  Hell, the scenes were slaves are tied together and thrown overboard to drown is excruciating.  But what are these scenes trying to demonstrate?  We have already seen the violence from the first scene, so it’s been well-established.  And, okay, that violence wasn’t directed towards the slaves so much, so maybe they need to show what these men actually had to endure.  That makes sense, but as an audience (and maybe this is coming from someone 19 years in the future who has already seen multiple movies depicting the gore of slavery) we know they went through some shit.  The scene is, I think, meant to illustrate Cinque’s journey to lawyer Baldwin, but he’s already on their side.  The story doesn’t convince him of anything, it just reinforces what he’s fighting for.

I’d say the character who experiences the most growth or development of some kind is the replacement judge, picked out by President Van Buren himself.  What happens is, there’s they old judge, and the Baldwin’s team makes some progress towards freeing Cinque and the others.  But when this happens, President Van Buren (who is aware of the support in the South he needs for reelection) is convinced to appoint a new judge to the case, one who has his entire career ahead of him and will want to appease the powers that put him in place.  In other words, the new judge will most likely have a bias against Baldwin’s case.  In the end, though, he rules in favor of Baldwin, Cinque and the others.  What compelled this judge to rule that way?  If he’s truly an unbiased judge, then all the power to him, but it felt like he may have been swayed by something along the way.  Unless I just missed that scene, it felt like we never saw his moment of realization.  He’s the one would would be the most affected by Cinque’s story, but the depiction of that story is only to enlighten the audience and Baldwin himself.

I can’t imagine that acting in a movie like this is fun, but I’m not an actor so what do I know.  I think a lot of people act in movies made by acclaimed directors because it’s often such an incredible opportunity, one that would be hard to turn down.  But, for example, McConaughey didn’t really have much to do here.  There have been plenty of other movies that use his strengths as an actor much more fully (mainly Dazed and Confused), and here he’s just another guy.  I will say that Djimon Hounsou was pretty great in his role, but that’s also because he had to portray the highs and (mostly) lows of what his character went through.  His role was very performative, balancing forced composure and moments in which all he’s trying to do is survive.  He gets to show a character that’s forced to live in multiple worlds and adapt to survive in all of them.  On the slave ship that means scrambling for food, and in the court room that means standing when everyone else stands and keeping his head up because of the message it sends to the nearby townsfolk.

Anthony Hopkins are Morgan Freeman are also in this movie.  Hopkins plays John Quincy Adams, and he’s quite good, but I don’t feel like there’s much to say beyond that.  He delivers a very impressive monologue to the Supreme Court in the movie’s climax, but he’s preaching to the choir (the audience).  There’s no moment of realization or discovery on the audience’s part, and maybe that’s why I didn’t particularly enjoy this movie.  I also don’t know if I’m supposed to enjoy a movie about slavery much like a movie about the Holocaust.  These things are supposed to be hard to watch.

There’s a really great video I found online recently about the 2015 film Ex Machina and the journey of discovery you’re on as an audience member.  The basic point of the video is that the main character is presented as the one with the least information.  There are three main characters, and the other two all know something that the audience surrogate does not.  This allows the audience to go on the journey of discovery with him.  I don’t know if that would work for a film like this, so maybe that’s asking for something that could never be delivered since we all know slavery is bad, and we could probably all assume Cinque and the others would be freed by the end of the film.  It all feels a little inevitable because we know how history played out.  That’s why it feels like something from the History channel.

Again, maybe it could be cut down to 100 minutes from 150.  I get it that Spielberg thinks this stuff might be hard to stomach, so we’re forced to sit there and watch it, but it feels overly indulgent.  12 Years a Slave is a much better movie depicting the brutality and complications of life as a slave and life in a community that’s battling itself over the issue of slavery.  That’s something I think a lot of films ignore, the divide between the country that eventually led to the Civil War, and this movie briefly touches upon it, but not really.  It ends with a montage of all the things that happened after the trial, and one of them is a shot of the end of the Civil War, once again instructing us on when the war ended and who won (the North!) as if we didn’t already know how it unfolded.  This whole montage feels like it is intended to be a moment of triumph for the audience.  We’re even told that President Van Buren (who cared about nothing other than reelection) wasn’t reelected, and we’re supposed to smile like when that slimy lawyer from The Lost World: Jurassic Park was eaten.  Then the film shows Cinque headed back home to Africa, and the onscreen titles tell us that he never found his family (they were probably sold into slavery), and his village was destroyed.  The end.  The movie, on the surface, feels like a happy ending, but it’s either undercut by this simple information or the movie doesn’t want to admit it wasn’t a happy ending after all.

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