Slave to Historical Fashion

What's downplayed in Amistad is the extent to which the Africans' trials were a crucible for the nation's attitudes toward slavery. Supporters of the Africans were careful to avoid the fire-and-brimstone trappings of abolitionism, hoping to bring moderates to the cause through a concerted appeal to moral decency. The timing was right. As Howard Jones writes in his superb, densely detailed Mutiny on the Amistad, "Cinque and his companions could not have known, but... the nation was experiencing a widespread reform movement that, on the surface at least, exalted the common man and emphasized equality of opportunity."

The Africans were an ideal test case for trying out abolitionist sentiments because, shackled, they posed no real threat; there were even three young girls among them. They didn't want to overrun the United States -- they merely wanted their freedom to return to Africa. The lack of threat allowed antislavery sympathizers to feel both virtuous and paternalistic.

Spielberg tries mightily to avoid seeming paternalistic in Amistad by introducing the character of Freeman's Joadson, who unfortunately is given almost nothing to do except stand around and be black. (It's a waste of a great actor.) Most of the white characters, even the Africans' defenders, seem in varying degrees craven and compromised. Tappan, for example, is revealed as a closet racist when he ponders the notion of martyring the Africans to help the cause. Baldwin is played (in too modern a fashion) by McConaughey as an opportunist with granny glasses, which is rather a slur on the actual Baldwin, a staunch antislavery advocate right out of law school who, according to Jones, in 1831 had confronted an angry mob resisting his attempt to build a black training school near what was then known as Yale College.

On the other side, Van Buren, no supporter of the Africans, is rendered daffily: He is last seen in defeat, his sideburns tufted and his eyes vacant, tuning his harp with a tiny, tinkly bell.

Even Adams, for all his creaky dignity, is padded out with silly bits of business -- like tending to his prize African violets. (Get it?) It wouldn't do to show Adams from the start as a man of unwavering principle: First we must see him reject the abolitionists' repeated pleas to enter the fray. Adams in reality was a trusted advisor from the start, and his reluctance to fully join in had mostly to do with his infirmities. In Amistad his crotchety coyness has an unintended effect on us: It looks as if he waited out the Africans' cause until it entered the big time -- the Supreme Court -- implying he's an opportunist, too.

Adams' big speech before the high court gives Hopkins a fine hammy opportunity, and he delivers. (Forty years ago the role would have gone to Spencer Tracy.) It's an effective scene but also somewhat dishonest: Adams invokes the Founding Fathers in his antislavery spiel without remarking that many of them were also slave owners. We're not meant to notice the omission. In civics-lesson movies the first casualty is irony.

Cinque and the other Africans are ennobled; their (subtitled) speech, their chants, their rituals, are far more passionate than the prattle of the whites. Although Spielberg shows how Africans themselves participated in the slave trade, he still pushes the notion that Cinque and his band are representative of a more wholly spiritual and evolved human being. (Hounsou, with his large presence and rich-grained voice, looks the part of a native prince.) When the Africans' lower-court victory is overturned, Cinque can't understand why the white American system of justice "almost works." He wails, "What kind of place is this?" Did no one in his homeland ever welsh on a deal?

In a way Spielberg is attempting to cast himself as the modern-day avatar of the white reformers in his movie. He, too, exalts "the common man." He may see it as his mission now, after Schindler's List, to use his unprecedented power in Hollywood to redress grievous wrongs and make the world a better place. (That is, when he's not making thrill-ride movies.) It's an admirable impulse, but it's the impulse of a politician, not an artist, though the two occasionally coincide.

One such occasion in Amistad is the depiction of the slave ship's middle passage. The obscenity of what we're watching -- in which black bodies are fed to the sea and mothers silently jump overboard with their babies -- is matched by our realization that a mainstream Hollywood movie has never really depicted this horror before. That's an obscenity, too. Normally when he goes into his righteous reformer's mode, Spielberg betrays his sharpest filmmaker's instincts. Not here. Amistad is itself a movie in shackles. Stylistically it's staid -- weighted with import. But in his depiction of the slave ship transit, Spielberg throws off the shackles. Be thankful for large favors.

Amistad.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by David Franzoni. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, and Matthew McConaughey.

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