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Amistad (1997,USA)

12/07/2011

Director: Steven Spielberg      Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Pete Postlethwaite

Few names are as synonymous with blockbuster movies than Steven Spielberg. In fact, it is fair to say the blockbuster movie as we know it was defined by Mr Spielberg with his big budget, crowd pleasing mega hits stretching as far back as 1975’s Jaws. But nestled inbetween the E.T.s and Jurassic Parks lies the evidence that there’s more to this giant of cinema than summer seat fillers. A quick perusal of his filmography reveals a penchant for more serious work, exploring more earnest issues whether it’s the American Civil Rights movement in The Colour Purple, the Holocaust in Schindler’s List or, with Amistad, changing attitudes to slavery in nineteenth century America.

It concerns the fate of a group of Africans abducted from their home and sold illegally into slavery in Cuba before being transferred to the states, thus sidestepping international treaties preventing the trafficking in slaves who have not been born into slavery (as if that is any better). En route the slaves revolt against the ship’s crew slaughtering most of them which, when they arrive at the Eastern seaboard of the USA, results in their immediate incarceration while the courts try to figure out who exactly they belong to. Stepping in on the prisoners’ behalf are freed slave and abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Freeman) and a young upstart attorney Roger Baldwin (McConaughey) who attempt to demonstrate the men and women carried as cargo on the good ship La Amistad were actually from Africa and not plantation workers from Cuba, a fight that proves less than straightforward when it makes waves in political circles as the outcome of the case could prove the catalyst for civil war.

Essentially a courtroom drama with Baldwin matching wits with the late, great Pete Postlethwaite’s District Attorney Holabird, it’s actually quite a fascinating insight into the state of play in the American judicial system in the mid-nineteenth century. As so often seems to be the case with these period pieces, not a hell of a lot has changed in the world of litigation. The best representation is available to the rich and powerful with the poor and disenfrachised having to make do with whatever they can get. In this particular instance though what they get is a young, gifted lawyer with a sense for what is right and a good understanding of the law which, if this wasn’t rooted firmly in real events, you would be forgiven for writing off as a lazy stereotype. McConaughey is on good form as the shabby property lawyer Baldwin, thankfully allowed to work outwith the shadow of the ever over earnest Morgan Freeman (who blessedly takes a relatively minor role here). Everyone is dwarfed though by the power of the performance of Djimon Hounsou as Cinque, the unofficial spokesperson for the Africans who manages to express everything you need to understand his ordeal with physicality and vocal expression, even if you didn’t have the subtitles to understand what he’s saying. Elemental stuff.

The horrendous nature of the prisoners’ ordeal is vividly expressed throughout. The indignities they suffer at the hands of the US authorities pale into insignificance when compared to the nightmare of their trans-Atlantic journey. Tortured, starved, cast overboard when they become a liability, Spielberg doesn’t pull the punches in illustrating the inhumanity that they have been subjected to long before they ever set foot on American soil. At times, the depiction of their treatment on the slave ships calls to mind the images from Abu Ghraib prison or Guantanomo Bay, the prisoners terrified into submission, maltreated and malnourished into obedience and brutally punished for transgressions against their captors. It’s potent stuff and has an inherent ability to make you squirm in your seat with a sense of collusion.

Where all this falls flat is with the insistence that almost every frame of the film be accompanied by a constant ebb and flow of “emotive” incidental music. John Williams, legendary film composer and regular Spielberg collaborator, seems to have done an appalling job of things on Amistad. Barely a moment goes by without a painfully patronising musical queue to remind us how we should be feeling about things. It’s not just an insult to the audience, it’s a slap in the face to the actors as well. There are many moments in the film where you wish the orchestra would just shut up and let the images and action speak for themselves. When a chained group of slaves are jettisoned from the ship, helped to the seabed with a netful of rocks, you don’t need a swelling soundtrack to tell you this is a tragic abuse of humanity. Granted, often the emotion of a film is dictated by the soundtrack, but the adage less is more is as appropriate here as anywhere. The constant underscoring of every moment of the film is counterproductive to any attempt to build a sense of gravitas and makes the whole shebang feel like a bad TV movie. It’s a shocking misstep given the success of the Williams/Spielberg partnership elsewhere.

If you can tune out this annoyance it is an otherwise decent film, made all the more interesting by its grounding in real events and the relatively stark way in which it presents the hypocrisy of America, a nation founded on the notion of freedom for all and that all men are created equal but which struggles so much with living up to this value system (as much now as it did almost two hundred years ago). If you can’t tune out the mawkish score though, it may prove a difficult couple of hours.

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