Slave to Historical Fashion

Steven Spielberg's Amistad is being given the Big Picture treatment -- Schindler's List big, not Jurassic Park big. Last week's Newsweek featured the film on its cover, calling it "Spielberg's controversial new movie," even though it had not yet been released and the only "controversy" was a legal one about alleged cribbing by screenwriter David Franzoni from the similarly themed novel Echo of Lions.

In fact, Spielberg's film -- about the 1839 revolt of 53 Africans aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad and their subsequent capture and trials in the United States -- is designed to be uncontroversial. It's not a work of great imagination or depth; except in its opening scene, and its harrowing depiction of the slave ship's middle passage en route to America, it doesn't try to offer up a view of race or slavery that might powerfully challenge audiences, particularly white audiences, to examine their consciences.

What it does instead is straightforwardly re-create an incendiary and relatively unexamined episode in American history in which the captured Africans' cause is taken up by abolitionists and finally argued successfully by ex-president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) before the Supreme Court. Amistad is not, by Hollywood standards, as hokey as most historical dramas, but it's still squarely in the Hollywood-historical camp. Lavishly produced, it has a rehearsed dignity, as if it were intended as a superduper high school history curriculum teaching aid.

The one bit of real daring in the film is its opening: Joseph Cinque (West African actor Djimon Hounsou), the name the Spanish gave to an abducted Mende rice farmer enslaved aboard La Amistad, works loose his shackles and leads a revolt against the white Spaniards. It's clear what's going on here, even if we have not yet been primed as to why; horrifying as the scene is, it exists in a righteous, comprehensible framework. And yet Cinque, photographed against a thunder-and-lightning night sky, his teeth bared, is a monster unleashed -- and that's the point. Cinque is a white man's nightmare of the avenging savage, and Spielberg doesn't deny the bloodlust of the moment or the revulsion and estrangement audiences of any color may feel in watching it.

This sense of dislocation is what's missing from most racial dramas, especially historical ones. So much is made of how we are all brothers under the skin that we never get to experience the strangeness and alienation that is also part of the picture. Herman Melville's short story "Benito Cereno," which was also about a slave ship revolt, is the great American text concerning the tragedy of racial separateness, and it would probably be too incendiary to film even today (though John Huston and others, including Phillip Noyce, had wanted to). Early on in Amistad, Spielberg ventures into Benito Cereno-style choppy waters only to paddle into the shallows of the civics lesson. Shackles are transformed into laurel wreaths.

The drama intensifies when the Africans, after setting off from Cuba, mutiny and are later captured near the coast of Long Island. The 39 who survived the mutiny are transferred to a prison in New London, Connecticut, a state where slavery is still legal. Battle lines are drawn immediately. The abolitionists, headed up by the evangelical Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard), scrappy property lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), and ex-slave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), face off in the lower courts against government prosecutor William S. Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite) and Pres. Martin Van Buren's secretary of state, John Forsyth (David Paymer).

Cranky and infirm, John Quincy Adams resists the implorings of the abolitionists until Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), up for re-election and fearing the loss of the Southern states, appeals the lower-court ruling that found in favor of the slaves; he also appoints a new and supposedly more sympathetic judge -- to no ultimate avail. The case then moves on to the Supreme Court, where Adams's argument for the Africans' freedom, which actually comprised some four and a half hours of dense legalisms, is reduced to a grandstanding monologue in which he invokes the spirit of the Founding Fathers (including that of his own father, John Adams) and receives for his troubles the hearty handclasp of a grateful Cinque. It's black chief/white chief time.

Spielberg and Franzoni (with a hefty uncredited assist from Schindler's List screenwriter Steven Zaillian) work their way through the maze of pressure tactics both sides employed. It's to their credit that the various legal maneuvers -- the early attempt by the abolitionists, for example, to characterize the Africans not as slaves but as "stolen goods" -- come across without a lot of dumbing-down. And yet what is missing from the film is the almost hallucinatory jumble of legal complications and wranglings that the Africans' trials engendered, and the way those complications heatedly divided the nation. The problem with Amistad is that, in attempting to render its events lucidly, it loses the drama in what was inherently a legal, ethical, and political crazy quilt.

The point of Spielberg's populist approach, of course, is that it was all quite simple: The case was about justice. Obviously. But so, in a sense, was the Civil War, and yet if one were to unclutter the issues of that war, the richness of its drama would be lost. The La Amistad case was a prelude to that war; its patchwork is cut from the same zigzag weave.

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