THE 17TH FILM of Steven Spielberg's career (his first for DreamWorks) remains an interesting, underrated curio. A further illustration of Spielberg's desire to grapple seriously with history (witness The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan), it was dismissed on release either as a dry civics lesson (which is partially true) or as a kind of "Schindler's Roots", an attempt by Spielberg to hijack someone else's cultural heritage to win critical kudos (which is patently untrue). It has been relegated, alongside The Sugarland Express and Always, to the ranks of Spielberg Films No-One Ever Talks About — which is a shame as there is much more going on here than first met the eye.
Originally, Spielberg was going to segue from The Lost World straight to Private Ryan. Yet, slipping in a project initiated by producer Debbie Allen (of Fame fame), he took a stripped down crew from the Jurassic sequel and shot Amistad on the fly in just 46 days. The subject of a highly publicised (and ultimately unsuccessful) plagiarism lawsuit after respected author Barbara Chase-Riboud claimed that DreamWorks stole that interpretation of history described in her novel Echo Of Lions; the source material centres on the aftermath of a mutiny by 53 African captives aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad. As the mutineers, led by Cinque (Hounsou), are captured in American waters, a series of courtroom trials begins to determine ownership of the slaves, the case finally ending up in the supreme court with ex-President John Quincy Adams (Hopkins) fighting for the Africans' freedom.
On its opening, even the most die-hard Spielberg aficionado had trouble defending its merits. Yet this dislocation for the real-life Dawson Leerys could have arisen because, on first impressions, this is the most un-Spielberg film that Spielberg has ever made. Storytelling briskness is replaced by ponderous pacing. Spectacle is sidelined by an abundance of dialogue. Visual dynamism is usurped by painterly tableaux, a series of static, muted, distanced compositions aeons away from The Color Purple's prettification of black culture.
However, Amistad echoes around Spielberg's movies in more ways than were first apparent. It shares with Temple Of Doom, Empire Of The Sun and Schindler's List themes of incarceration and survival and, as lawyer Roger Baldwin (McConaughey) tries to discover who the Africans are, the film elaborates on a striving for communication that has traversed much of Spielberg's work, in particular Close Encounters and E.T..
Moreover, all the typical directorial nous is present and correct, only this time you had to search for it; the massive close-ups of Cinque's features in the opening insurrection; the colour scheme of the courtroom which progresses from an overblown messy look highlighting the prisoners' limbo through to the pristine velvety elegance of the Supreme Court as a verdict is finally delivered. The images depicting the slave ship drownings — an infant raised above the tortured bodies in the ship's hold, the chains of Africans pushed to their death — are among the most shocking, sorrowful yet strangely beautiful Spielberg has committed ever to film, the brutality perfectly counterpointed by the tinkling of a music box. In a year when Titanic won the Academy award for Best Picture, the filmmaking finesse Spielberg brought to Amistad looked positively arthouse.
A further demonstration of Spielberg's ability to tap into the Zeitgeist, the release of Amistad coincided with a reinvestigation into America's relationship with slavery. President Clinton held a "town meeting" with prominent authors to ponder race debates, schools named after slave owners underwent moniker changes and debates raged over whether Americans should formally apologise for slavery (as Germany did for Nazism), and pay billions of dollars in reparations to descendants of slaves.
Into this hotbed, Amistad came under attack from certain historians as a misleading brand of "infotainment" —DreamWorks literature surrounding the film quoted conversations between Adams and Cinque when in reality the pair never met — but was generally perceived to respect the complexities in the issues of slavery and race. From Cinque battling Baldwin to infighting between African tribes through the congressional sparring of Adams, this is a film full of conciliation but, importantly, not reconciliation. Spielberg has no easy solutions to the race problem: just a sensible awareness of cultures, language and dialects intermingling in the New World.
That race is such an open wound stateside may have contributed to the markedly different reception afforded Amistad than Schindler's List: while the horrors of the Holocaust happened thousands of miles away, the spectre of slavery happened right on their own doorstep, boring a hole in the US soul. Not only was Spielberg's meditation on homegrown atrocity underappreciated, it may also have been largely unwanted.
A subtle and righteous film with a host of fine performances.
The Amistad Case in Fact and Film
by Eric Foner
Historian Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, examines the issues surrounding the historical film Amistad. In this essay he explores the problems faced by the producers of Amistad and the shortcomings of both the film and its accompanying study guide in their attempt to portray history. More importantly, Foner raises questions not only about the accuracy of details and lack of historic context, but also about the messages behind Hollywood’s portrayal of history as entertainment. (Posted March 1998)
Compared with most Hollywood megafilms, Amistad must be considered a step forward: it’s about slavery, not exploding volcanoes or rampaging raptors. But given that Steven Spielberg is the director, Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman the stars, and a reported $75 million was spent on production, it can only be judged a disappointment. It does contain a few visually compelling moments, such as the scene on a slave ship that viscerally conveys the horrors of the Middle Passage. Overall, however, as a movie Amistad is simply a bore. As history, this account of a Cuban slave ship seized in 1839 by its African captives, and their legal travail that ended in the U. S. Supreme Court, also leaves much to be desired.
Amistad‘s problems go far deeper than such anachronisms as President Martin Van Buren campaigning for reelection on a whistle-stop train tour (in 1840, candidates did not campaign), or people constantly talking about the coming Civil War, which lay twenty years in the future. Despite the filmmakers’ orgy of self-congratulation for rescuing black heroes from oblivion, the main characters of Amistad are white, not black.
The plot pivots on lawyer Roger Baldwin’s dawning realization that the case he is defending involves human beings, not just property rights, and on the transformation of John Quincy Adams, who initially refuses to assist the captives but eventually persuades the Supreme Court to order their return to Africa. As in Glory, an earlier film about black Civil War soldiers, Amistad's black characters are essentially foils for white self-discovery and moral growth.
This problem is compounded by having the Africans speak Mende, a West African language, with English subtitles. A courageous decision by Hollywood standards, this device backfired along the way when someone realized that Americans do not like subtitled movies, as foreign filmmakers have known for decades. In the end, most of the Mende dialogue ended up on the cutting- room floor. Apart from the intrepid Cinque, the Africans' leader, we never learn how the captives responded to their ordeal. It would have been far better to have the Africans speak English (the film, after all, is historical fiction), rather than rendering them virtually mute.
Most seriously, Amistad presents a highly misleading account of the case’s historical significance, in the process sugarcoating the relationship between the American judiciary and slavery. The film gives the distinct impression that the Supreme Court was convinced by Adams' plea to repudiate slavery in favor of the natural rights of man, thus taking a major step on the road to abolition.
In fact, the Amistad case revolved around the Atlantic slave trade — by 1840 outlawed by international
treaty — and had nothing whatever to do with slavery as an domestic institution. Incongruous as it may seem, it was perfectly possible in the nineteenth century to condemn the importation of slaves from Africa while simultaneously defending slavery and the flourishing slave trade within the United States.
In October 1841, in an uncanny parallel to events on the Amistad, American slaves being transported from Virginia to Louisiana on the Creole seized control of the ship, killing some crew members and directing the mate to sail to the Bahamas. For fifteen years, American Secretaries of State unsuccessfully badgered British authorities to return the slaves as both murderers and “the recognized property” of American citizens. This was far more typical of the government’s stance toward slavery than the Amistad affair.
Rather than being receptive to abolitionist sentiment, the courts were among the main defenders of slavery. A majority of the Amistad justices, after all, were still on the Supreme Court in 1857 when, in the Dred Scott decision, it prohibited Congress from barring slavery from the Western territories and proclaimed that blacks in the United States had “no rights which a white man is bound to respect.”
The film’s historical problems are compounded by the study guide now being distributed to schools, which encourages educators to use Amistad to teach about slavery. The guide erases the distinction between fact and fiction, urging students, for example, to study black abolitionism through the film’s invented character, Theodore Joadson, rather than real historical figures. And it fallaciously proclaims the case a “turning-point in the struggle to end slavery in the United States.”
Most galling, however, is the assumption that a subject does not exist until it is discovered by Hollywood. The guide ends with a quote from Debbie Allen, Amistad's producer, castigating historians for suppressing the “real history” of African-Americans and slavery. Historians may be guilty of many sins, but ignoring slavery is not one of them. For the past forty years, no subject has received more scholarly attention. All American history textbooks today contain extensive treatments of slavery, almost always emphasizing the system’s brutality and the heroism of those who survived — the very things Amistad's promoters claim have been suppressed.
If the authors of the study guide really want to promote an understanding of slavery, they should direct students not to this highly flawed film, but to the local library. There they will discover several shelves of books on slavery and slave resistance, from academic tomes to works for children. Maybe, in this era of budget cuts, some of that $75 million could have more profitably been spent on our public libraries.