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By the time Amistad reached theaters in late 1997, Steven Spielberg had been a directorial superstar for more than twenty years, with mega hits like Jaws (1975), the Indiana Jones franchise, and the Jurassic Park pictures to his credit. He'd had a harder time getting recognized as a mature and thoughtful filmmaker, but after disappointments such as The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun in 1985 and 1987, he'd finally done the trick with Schindler's List in 1993, earning enthusiastic reviews and his first Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. Amistad was another bid for respectability beyond the thrills-and-spills genres, and again he chose a fact-based vehicle that combined historical interest with emotional human drama. This time the reviews were all over the map, and its four Oscar® nominations didn't include Spielberg or the picture itself.
The film begins in the dark, misery-filled hold of the Amistad, a ship carrying kidnapped Africans from Cuba to the American slave market in 1839. One of the prisoners, a tribal leader named Cinque, manages to break out of his chains and lead a revolt against the captain and crew, in which nearly all of the white sailors are killed. Ordered to head toward Africa, where the captives naturally want to return, the surviving crewmen steer the ship northward on the sly, winding up off the coast of Connecticut, where the US Navy moves in and seizes the vessel.
This ends the action-oriented part of Amistad, which now becomes a legal drama with many scenes set in courtrooms and law offices. Connecticut is a non-slavery state, but that doesn't mean it's an anti-slavery state, as the fifty-three captives discover when battles break out among various people claiming ownership of the Amistad's human cargo, up to and including Isabella II, the Spanish queen. A happy ending comes about when former US president John Quincy Adams makes a rousing presentation to the Supreme Court that results in freedom for Cinque and his companions, who have languished behind bars throughout the seemingly interminable ordeal.
The idea of filming the Amistad affair came from actress and director Debbie Allen, who had run across some books on the subject. After running into fund-raising problems, she brought the project to Spielberg, who wanted to stretch his artistic wings after making The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and was looking for a prestige production to direct for DreamWorks SKG, the studio he'd recently co-founded. Spielberg was an unlikely person to tackle the Amistad story, since his previous picture about black characters, The Color Purple, had been badly received by the black community, its eleven Oscar® nominations (no wins) notwithstanding. "I got such a bollocking for The Color Purple," he told a New York Times interviewer, "I thought, I'll never do that again." But he saw great potential in the Amistad story and decided to take it on, even though his crowded schedule meant doing preproduction while DreamWorks was still being launched and postproduction while Saving Private Ryan (1998) was before the camera. Spielberg signed an impressive cast including Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey, recruited fledgling actor Djimon Hounsou for the key role of Cinque, and assembled a panel of African-American scholars to serve as historical advisors. According to pre-release publicity, he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski prepared the film's visual style by studying the paintings of Francisco Goya.
Amistad ran into trouble immediately after Spielberg wrapped it, thanks to a legal action filed by the author of a historical novel about the Amistad mutiny. The lawsuit called for damages of $10 million and an injunction barring the film's release, claiming that Spielberg's production company had received a draft of the novel in 1988 and plundered it for "scenes, characters and plot devices," such as the black abolitionist lawyer played by Morgan Freeman, who existed in the novel but not in the real-life Amistad case. The lawsuit sank (after DreamWorks negotiated a monetary settlement) and Amistad sailed into theaters on schedule, but not before the flap generated amusing headlines like Entertainment Weekly's "Mutiny and the Bounty" and Time's "Steven Stealberg?"
Despite its Hollywood stars, dramatic subject, and social conscience, Amistad hit very rough seas when reviewers and audiences got a look at it. Hostile reactions to The Color Purple had left Spielberg with "deep scars," in the words of film scholar Lester D. Friedman, but his second venture into black experience fared even worse, grossing a mere $44 million domestically (compared with $94 million for the earlier film) and a paltry $16.2 worldwide the worst performance of any Spielberg picture to this day, including such legendary let-downs as 1941 (1979) and Always (1989). Among the African-American observers who supported it was critic Armond White, who named it the year's best movie and wrote an essay in Film Comment analyzing and praising it. Among those who derided it was filmmaker Warrington Hudlin, who said that "black people don't want to go to this movie" because only masochists "would want to spend two hours watching themselves be degraded and dehumanized."
White critics were equally divided. "While it's in progress," wrote Stanley Kaufmann in The New Republic, "it envelops us; paradoxically, when it's finished, it seems to stand free, like a strong sculpture." The reviewer for The Washington Post stated that it "again demonstrates the director's flair for bringing lost worlds alive," and Time said that Spielberg "unsentimentally places us in touch with our best sentiments." On the downside, the Rocky Mountain News opined that Amistad's "rendering of history plays like a massive term paper" and Entertainment Weekly described it as "two and a half hours of black men sitting around in chains waiting to be given their freedom." In my Christian Science Monitor review I observed that no African character except Cinque is allowed to present an individual personality, just as most of the Jewish characters in Schindler's List are depicted as an undifferentiated crowd. I also criticized the claim that Goya's "unromanticized realism" had inspired the look of Amistad, since the picture "is drenched so stiflingly in romanticized mistiness that `realism' is one of the last words...to describe it."
Spielberg himself eventually recognized the shortcomings of his ambitious period piece. "I kind of dried it out," he told an interviewer in 1999, "and it became too much of a history lesson." Yet the mixed responses to Amistad when it was new lend it extra interest now, giving viewers a chance to evaluate not only the film but judgments about the film, some of which hold up well while others seem to have missed the point. Spielberg probably won't tackle a specifically black subject again, after the poor showings of Amistad and The Color Purple; but his plan to direct the Civil War epic Lincoln indicates that he's still drawn to the dramatic possibilities of America's racially troubled past.
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: David Franzoni
Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski
Film Editing: Michael Kahn
Production Design: Rick Carter
Music: John Williams
Cast: Morgan Freeman (Joadson), Nigel Hawthorne (Martin Van Buren), Anthony Hopkins (John Quincy Adams), Djimon Hounsou (Cinque), Matthew McConaughey (Baldwin), David Paymer (Secretary Forsyth), Pete Postlethwaite (Holabird), Stellan Skarsgrd (Tappan), Razaaq Adoti (Yamba), Abu Bakaar Fofanah (Fala), Anna Paquin (Queen Isabella), Tomas Milian (Calderon), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Ensign Cobey), Derrick N. Ashong (Buakei), Geno Silva (Ruiz), John Ortiz (Montes), Ralph Brown (Lieutenant Gedney), Darren Burrows (Lieutenant Meade), Allan Rich (Judge Juttson), Paul Guilfoyle (attorney), Peter Firth (Captain Fitzgerald), Xander Berkeley (Hammond), Jeremy Northam (Judge Coglin), Arliss Howard (John C. Calhoun), Austin Pendleton (Professor Gibbs), Kevin J. O'Connor (missionary), Harry A. Blackmun (Associate Justice Joseph Story).
C-152m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by David Sterritt