12 February 2006 | Barky44
Powerful for Images of Slavery, but Only a Fair Portrayal of Legal Battle
I am a fan of historically-based dramas. I enjoy the genre, and Amistad did not disappoint me. It is well shot, the look and feel is quite right, and it pulls no punches in its cruel depiction of the slave trade.
Amistad shows this terrible business better than any other film I've ever seen. It portrays all the horrors: the capture of Africans at the hands of rival tribes; the abusive loading of slaves onto ships; the deplorable conditions; the murder and violence conducted in the name of economics; the hopelessness of the slaves' position; the crass indifference felt by the traders, auctioneers, owners and passers-by. Spielberg pulled few punches, only darkening the worst scenes to keep it from degenerating into some Rob Zombie horror film (thereby retaining an audience).
The film also does a good job with the portrayal of the heroes, the slaves who fought for their freedom aboard the schooner Amistad. You can really feel their anger, confusion, and frustration as the events unfold. They are a people pushed from one holding cell to another, subjected to trials and procedures incomprehensible to them (both for language barriers and for the inanity of it all).
One part the filmmakers did a fine job with was the communication barrier. Some of the best scenes involve the ignorance of the Connecticut gentry as they stare blankly at the Africans as they speak their tongue; incompetent linguists stating the obvious and disguising it as "science"; lawyers trying to figure out the slaves' stories; and finally the leader of the escaped Africans declaring "Give us free!" That part really stood out for me.
There are a few criticisms I can lay upon this film, however. Firstly, they didn't do that great of a job in portraying courtroom drama. Filmed in '97, this film predates some great television courtroom dramas (Law & Order, The Practice). Much of what happens in court is either boring or confusing or pointless. I think if Spielberg was able to study some of these great courtroom dramas, these parts would have had a lot more "punch". Having said that, Anthony Hopkins did some fine delivery as John Quincy Adams...
Another element I disliked was the clumsy interweaving of the "Big Slavery Picture" elements. There's a scene at President Van Buren's state dinner where Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina shows up and makes threats of civil war. The scene was really just thrown in there to try to put in some jeopardy, but the film was doing just fine without that. The intrigue between Van Buren and the Spanish girl queen was really nice, however (a very young Anna Paquin!).
The last element that didn't work too well was Morgan Freeman's character, Joadson. He really comes across as little more than an extra. He's such a fine actor, the script doesn't do him justice.
For the most part, this is a fine, and important, film. It just misses a few marks that would have made it a great film.
8 out of 10.