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 Hollywood's 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 give 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 here 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 also is part of the picture. Herman Melville's great short story Benito Cereno, which also was 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, 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 immediately drawn. 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 John Forsyth (David Paymer), President Martin Van Buren's secretary of state.

Cranky and infirm, Adams resists the implorings of the abolitionists until Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), up for reelection and fearing the loss of the Southern states, appeals the lower-court rulings that have found in favor of the slaves and appoints a new and supposedly more sympathetic judge to the case -- to no ultimate avail. The case then moves on to the Supreme Court, where Adams' argument for the Africans' freedom, which actually took in 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 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.

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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