Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 12, 2014)
As Iíve noted elsewhere, Steven Spielberg experienced almost unprecedented success in 1993. While Jurassic Park cleaned up at the box office and Schindlerís List walked away with multiple awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture.
It may not be an exaggeration to claim that no other director ever had such a prosperous year with the exception of 1939. In that year, Victor Fleming dominated cinema with both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard Of Oz.
Spielberg tried to recapture the magic in 1997. In May, he released The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, and in the fall, he put out Amistad, another epic battle against oppression in the same vein as List.
However, duplicating the success of 1993 proved impossible. Lost World did fairly well financially, as it took in $229 million, but this represented a significant decrease after the $356 million gross of Park, and both critics and fans viewed it with much less fondness.
Nonetheless, the greeting accorded World seemed rapturous compared to what occurred when Amistad appeared. At least World inspired a reaction; Amistad moved in and out of multiplexes in a hurry, and it generated none of the passion and positivity encountered by List. Most of those who saw Amistad thought little of it, and the movie seems destined to become one of Spielbergís most obscure.
Set in 1839, the opening shot feels like an outtake from Jurassic Park, as we watch a violent lightning-punctuated rebellion aboard the slave ship ďLa AmistadĒ. The slaves kill some of the crew but retain enough men to navigate back to their homes in Africa. Unfortunately, the sailors betray them, and they end up in America. There theyíre taken captive and a legal battle emerges in regard what will become of these people.
No lawyers want to take on this emotionally charged case, but eventually a patent attorney named Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) agrees to argue on the side of the Africans. Initially he views the trial as a strict matter of property and betrays no emotions in regard to the humanity of his clients, but as he gets to know them, he starts to become more personally involved in the case. This occurs mainly through his interactions with Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), one of the leaders of the group. The two bond, and Cinque also emerges as the moral center of the film with his dramatic courtroom declaration, ďGive us, us free!Ē
I nearly choked on my popcorn during that mawkish scene, and it punctuates everything thatís wrong with Amistad. Spielberg demonstrated layers of moral responsibility and depth with other dramatic flicks such as 1987ís Empire of the Sun and List, but he becomes the sentimental hack many believe him to be when he strongly involves black characters. Between Amistad and 1985ís The Color Purple, Spielberg creates simplistic tales of absolute right and wrong that betray no sense of character nuance or dimensionality.
At least Purple avoids one of the main problems with many films that examine black-related subjects. From Mississippi Burning to Cry Freedom, these flicks often focus too strongly on white participants on the periphery instead of the blacks who deserve the lead. Purple largely omits white participants, but unfortunately, Spielberg refuses to concentrate mainly on the Africans during Amistad.
Instead, Baldwin becomes the primary role, and rather than examine the Africans and their situation, the movie largely consists of a tale about Rogerís moral awakening. In this way, it seems excessively obvious and simplistic. Roger walks through various stages of awareness in a plodding manner as he attempts to free the slaves and demonstrate that Africans are people too, not just product. His quest goes all the way to the Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams takes the mantle to argue the case.
As a whole, Amistad feels contrived and calculated. As with Purple, much of the movie allows no room for interpretation or discussion; it becomes totally divided into extremely clear distinctions between good and bad. Granted, thereís not a whole lot of room for argument when it comes to slavery; I wonít disagree with Spielbergís contention that such a practice is a uniformly bad thing.
However, the movie suffers because it cast the characters into similarly black and white notions. Only Roger possesses any form of vagueness, but those attitudes exist as nothing other than a plot device to allow Spielberg to beat us over the head with its message. What exactly was that message, by the way - that slaveryís bad? Donít we already know this? Duck Dynasty stars aside, are there many who argue otherwise?
Because of the obviousness of the filmís moral, it seems pointless. While the revolt of the Amistad slaves is an interesting historical piece, it doesnít really translate well into a modern parable. I feel that Spielberg wants to use Amistad as a treatise on current racial attitudes and a plea for tolerance and understanding, but the story doesnít fit cleanly into that profile.
Instead, the tale comes across as little more than another heavy-handed and self-righteous condemnation of others who ever disagreed with the directorís notions. I certainly wonít defend slavery, but itís a mistake to try to view historical episodes purely through modern eyes. Our current notions eradicate the attitudes of the bygone era, which means that we canít truly understand them. What seems horrific to us appears natural and normal to folks in different cultures and periods.
Some would argue that as with the actions of the Nazis, slavery was absolutely indefensible regardless of the attitudes possessed within particular eras or societies, and Iíd agree with that. However, Amistad should have displayed greater depth and nuance to the characters on the non-abolitionist side of the coin. Instead, it prefers to paint them as villains without any redeeming characteristics. This makes the movie little more than a cartoon examination of the subject, and it lacks the scope that might have allowed it to breathe.
Speaking of which, virtually every aspect of Amistad batters home its messages. The Africans show no depth themselves, as they present little more than generic noble men and women totally without flaws. The movie indulges in some annoyingly cutesy moments to mock the American culture, while it never attempts to reverse the equation. That form of political correctness got old a long time ago; Iíve always hated the fact that it apparently is okay for one culture to criticize another in this way but the reverse would not be allowed.
The unilateral oppressiveness of Amistad extends to almost every element of the production. For example, John Williamsí score allows us no opportunity to think for ourselves. Instead, it beats us over the head with the movieís forced emotions and reinforces the cheap nature of the storytelling.
However, I wonít blame Williams for this, as I lay my criticism firmly at the feet of the director. With Amistad, Steven Spielberg once again gives his attackers ammunition, as he produces a movie that suffers from his main weaknesses but offers few of his strengths.
I remain a Spielberg backer, but I have to agree with his detractors that the man sometimes canít leave well enough alone. The tale behind Amistad is a valuable one, but the movie itself badly simplifies and dumbs down the story to the point where it becomes a sugary and sentimental piece of tripe.