AMISTAD (1997) 

Matthew McConaughey
Morgan Freeman
Djimon Hounsou
Nigel Hawthorne
Anthony Hopkins
Pete Postlethwaite
David Paymer
Jeremy Northam
Anna Paquin

Steven Spielberg




Time: 142 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: History/Drama/Courtroom

Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score and Best Supporting Actor (Hopkins).

Knowing what's coming out in the next few weeks – the Oscar rush – I'm sure that this latest film from Mr. Spielberg is going to be on the top of everyone's list. AMISTAD is a top-of-the-line drama that speaks to the heart. It's the story of a group of Africans, who were forced into slavery, that revolted against their captors, killing them on the high seas. Their ship, the Amistad, was captured off the American coast and it's "cargo" was imprisoned in a Connecticut jail until the matter could be sorted out. The matter being whether these 44 human beings were someone's property or men allowed to go free.

What follows are three courtroom trials, establishing who these individuals are, where they came from and who they belong to, if anyone. All the major players of the day are involved in the outcome – from Queen Isabella of Spain to the current president of the United States, Martin Van Buren. The reason it's important: the fate of these 44 individuals could be the straw that breaks the camel's back in the bitter debate over slavery between the North and South. There is more at stake than the freedom of these people.

The story that unfolds is devastating to watch. Spielberg holds nothing back – showing the horror of the treatment these men and women receive at the hands of their captors. It's sickening and at times as difficult to watch as parts of SCHINDLER'S LIST. After seeing the violence perpetrated against these people, who were ripped from their homes and families, starved, beaten and murdered, there is no doubt of the righteousness of their actions. The film gets weighted down a bit with all the legal mumbo-jumbo, losing some of its' passion and urgency amidst all the banter.

"What kind of a land is this where you almost mean what you say? Where laws almost work?"

The fact that the story is true makes the outcome all the more gripping. It illuminates a very precarious time in our nation's history. A time that found our leaders striving to carve out a national identity without resorting to bloodshed over a divisive issue. It's history, brought to life.

Though all of the performances are superb, Anthony Hopkins stands out as ex-president John Quincy Adams. With the help of first-class make-up, he transforms himself, yet again, into a character you can't take your eyes off of. Djimon Hounsou steals the show, proving with every breath what a hack Matthew McConaughey is. As Cinque, the unwilling spokesman for the Africans, the young actor is mesmerizing, making the most of his first film role. He speaks no English, but still makes you feel his pain, frustration and anger at a culture and system he neither accepts nor understands. It is very hard to give life to a character who uses mainly gestures and facial expressions to explain who he is. Hounsou makes Cinque the most eloquent person on screen. I hope he gets many more opportunities to showcase his talent.

When Spielberg decides to take on an issue, it's best to get out of his way. Many were displeased when he choose to make this film, considering it an African American story. I guess none of them saw THE COLOR PURPLE. He's an adept storyteller who covers all sides of this complicated issue, all the while making sure we know which way is up. It's a film about more than one small trial. We see first-hand the detestation slavery wreaked upon a people and a burgeoning nation. Hopefully, through this film we will be reminded of our past so we don't repeat it in our future. The film has its flaws, but its' lesson is one we should all be exposed to.

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