Movie Review By Andrea Chase
Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" is a cerebral film told in lofty, heroic fashion, that nonetheless manages quite a kick to the gut. It's based on the true story of a group of kidnapped Africans who in 1839 took over the ship taking them to slavery in the New World. When they landed in Long Island, they were arrested for murder with several parties claiming them as salvage.
The result was a legal wrangle lasting two years to determine if these people were human beings or objects. It was an occasion for political opportunists to reduce the principles of liberty upon which this country was founded into glib dinner party repartee. It was also a rallying point for abolitionists to make a statement for their cause, even if it meant martyring the Africans in the process.
The dispute eventually embroiled ex-president John Quincy Adams, who was then a member of congress tolerated with unconcealed condescension by his fellow legislators. Anthony Hopkins plays him as an acerbic, brilliant wit gamely imprisoned in an aging body.
Slavery at that time was still legal in the United States, but there was a loophole. Enslaving freeborn people was illegal. It falls to lawyer Roger Baldwin, played with resounding conviction by Matthew McConaughey to prove that they were freeborn and their mutiny justified. He fights manufactured evidence, perjury, and machinations from on high fueled by political expediency.
Baldwin may have initially taken the case strictly for its publicity value, (how contemporary) but he sticks with it even when the death threats start pouring in. Lucky for the Africans, because this lawyer's a concrete thinker. For him it's a cut and dried case of right and wrong.
The film shows in excruciating detail two equally disturbing pieces of history. The first is the horror endured by the captives during their passage from Africa to the New World. The account is violent in the extreme. The second is the spectacle of the Supreme Court of United States debating the validity of slavery as an institution. You can't help but wonder what people 150 years from now will think of our legal debates.
The script is an incisive history lesson that shows how little politics as a game has changed. It fails only in the character of Theodore Joadson, an ex-slave turned gentleman abolitionist. Morgan Freeman does what he can with an interesting idea that is a woefully underwritten part.
Early on, there's an image in "Amistad." The commandeered slave ship passes within inches of a ship on whose deck a dinner party is taking place. The refugees and the society folk stare at one another across the darkened water with mutual incomprehension. It's a brilliant metaphor for the human condition. Tolerance is work. So is justice. And neither is for the faint of heart.
© 1997 - Andrea Chase - Air Date: 12/10/97
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