By Fred Harvey
The History Place
Amistad, the new film by Steven Spielberg, is
a masterpiece of film making providing a thoroughly rewarding entertainment
and learning experience.
The film is a fictional portrayal of events surrounding
the successful revolt in 1839 by a group of Africans headed for slavery
in the Americas.
Spielberg begins the story as 53 Africans on board
the ship Amistad stage a bloody revolt and then force two
surviving crew members to sail back to Africa.
The crew members trick the Africans into believing
they are sailing home, all the while going no further than the eastern
seaboard of the U.S. After two months of sailing a haphazard course, and
desperately low on food and water, they are captured by a U.S. Navy ship
Now the Africans must cope with the U.S. legal
system which generally regards blacks as property. But if they can somehow
prove they are from Africa and were stolen into slavery, they might have
a chance for freedom, since the African slave trade has been outlawed by
The cause of the Africans is taken up by abolitionist
Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and a young attorney named Roger Baldwin
(Mathew McConaughey). The bewildered, infuriated African revolt leader
Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) must learn to communicate with these men who themselves
are bewildered by the Africans. Here, Spielberg uses little moments quite
well to make this meaningful as the two Americans, and we in the audience,
begin to bond with this human who at first seemed so different.
This is film making at its best, moving us, making
us aware, and then helping us realize, if only for a moment, the Africans
are not different, they share a universal desire to be free.
And surprisingly, they do prevail in court and
are ordered to be set free. But in a nation steadily heading toward civil
war over the issue of slavery, this case has taken on huge symbolic meaning,
and Southern slave owners are not about to sit back and let this happen.
As a result, the case heads for the U.S. Supreme
Court at the request of President Martin Van Buren, a slavery supporter,
who is running for re-election. Former President John Quincy Adams, played
masterfully by Anthony Hopkins, finally agrees to get involved although
he had been asked from the beginning to help. Here, once again, Spielberg
uses little moments -- as Cinque spots an African violet among Adams' plant
collection and smiles, then breathes in the aroma of the plant and the
aroma of freedom back home.
Cinque and Adams, seemingly worlds apart, bond
in spirit. When Adams appears before the Supreme Court, he delivers a quiet,
dignified argument for freedom with the power to set men free, both then
Rated R - For violence, nudity.