You’d be forgiven for having never heard of ‘Amistad’. While the other films in this retrospective are more familiar and commercially successful, this particular entry in Steven Spielberg’s considerable body of work seems to have been forgotten. Released in 1997, it had the misfortune of being pitted against the giant that was ‘Titanic’, and in the wake of that film, ‘Amistad’ disappeared into obscurity. While it would be safe to assume that a forgotten film is forgotten for good reason, that certainly isn’t the case here. In fact, ‘Amistad’ might be one of the acclaimed director’s greatest achievements.
The film dramatises the events surrounding the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad, where the slaves on the ship, led by Sengbe Pieh (Djamon Hounsou) rise against the Spanish crew, and the subsequent trial once the ship was captured off the shores of the United States over who can claim ownership of the ship’s ‘cargo’. At the centre of the storm is a young property lawyer Robert Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), representing a team of abolitionists (led by Morgan Freeman) who believe these men are not legitimate slaves, but something else altogether: Africans illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery against international law. With the begrudging support of ex-president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), Baldwin pushes the cause and the trial to the height of the U.S. legal system, creating an international situation, inching the country closer towards civil war, and building even further the debate over the issue of slavery and human rights.
It all sounds very dry - a period courtroom drama built around political bickering and white men chucking tantrums over who-owns-what - but ‘Amistad’ is as far from dry as is possible. In fact, this is an affecting, passionate and staggering film. Spielberg had demonstrated in ‘Schindler’s List’ that he wasn’t afraid of pulling out the stops with difficult material, and in many ways, ‘Amistad’ is even more brutal. Woven within the details of the trial is the story of the Amistad slaves and their accidental leader Sengbe, and Spielberg constructs the film in such a way that we ourselves question their origins. Are they legitimate slaves, bred and groomed for the task from birth, or were they kidnapped from their homes and fashioned as such? The answer to that question features one of the most upsetting sequences Spielberg has ever filmed, and one that isn’t easy to shake off. The slaves could not speak English, and the film doesn’t alter that fact, so that the connection between Sengbe and Baldwin has to overcome language and cultural barriers in order for the lawyer to understand their story and convince the court of their true identity. The trial itself, against all expectations, is absolutely thrilling, shot with veracity by Janusz Kaminski. In some ways, ‘Amistad’ represents a perfect fusion between Spielberg, Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams, every one of these artists at their best to create the tension needed to drive the film forward. Williams in particular delivers one of his most beautiful and heartbreaking scores.
Also at the top of their games are the remarkable ensemble cast, some of whom deliver the best performances of their careers. McConaughey is the biggest surprise, especially after his recent purgatory in unacceptable comedies. You’ll spend the film wondering where his considerable dramatic talent has gone. I don’t think he’s ever been better than in ‘Amistad’. He's backed up by a slew of dependable greats, with Freeman, Hopkins and Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin Van Buren, as wonderful as ever. But perhaps the real revelation is Djimon Hounsou. While he became a familiar face after his part in Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ (2000), ‘Amistad’ represented his American debut, and his performance is one of raw animalistic passion. Every cell in his body is completely devoted to Sengbe’s sense of confusion and injustice, and his inability to be understood by these strange and absurd white men. At the centre of the film comes Sengbe’s impromptu plea to the court for freedom, and the film rises to such an emotional height that it’s near impossible not to be moved to tears. It might be the most emotional and passionate moment Spielberg has ever filmed, and this is almost entirely due to the power of Hounsou’s performance.
This film sees Spielberg at his darkest and perhaps most uncompromising.
However, what shocks the most about ‘Amistad’, especially within Spielberg’s body of work, is its tone. Even in ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’, there is a sense of optimism or hope within the most harrowing of moments. This film sees Spielberg at his darkest and perhaps most uncompromising. You can almost sense an anger and ferocity in its execution, perhaps in the fact that, unlike his other History Films, this is an injustice being enacted on American soil, and how unacceptable it is for a country built on such idealistic principles to have been part of something so shocking. No matter how often you see it, ‘Amistad’ is still an uncomfortably upsetting film, and perhaps this is why it has been forgotten for so long. While ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Ryan’ and ‘Munich’ all have commercial appeal, ‘Amistad’ may just be too intense to handle. It certainly wasn’t a commercial success, barely recovering its rather modest budget at the box office.
Does ‘Amistad’ deserves the purgatory it seems to have been relegated to? Not in the slightest. In fact, it might be his great overlooked masterpiece. Here we see proof of just how important a filmmaker Spielberg really is, handling material that in lesser hands could have been typical sentimental Oscar-bait, but is instead a harrowing and overwhelming experience. With ‘Lincoln’, he returns to the subject of slavery and the turning point in American history where the fate of the nature rests on this question of human rights. Hopefully its success will bring about a return for ‘Amistad’, an obvious companion piece to the film. Something this good deserves to be appreciated as the achievement it so clearly is.