Amistad – Review

13 May

In 1839, the slave ship La Amistad was taken over in a slave revolt led by Mende captives. This led to a drawn out trial involving many different parties concerning murder charges and property rights, while abolitionists of the time used the trial to prove that these Africans had rights the same as anybody else. While this incident didn’t change the times it did have lasting effects whose ripples could be felt throughout that time in history. It remained a story that seemed overshadowed by other historical events until Steven Spielberg, producer Debbie Allen, and writer David Franzoni resurrected the story for modern audiences. While it isn’t the most historically accurate film in the world, it has a sense of courage and honor that shows there was plenty of good in a time of evil.

After freeing himself from his chains securing him to the slave ship La Amistad, Mende captive Sengbe (Djimon Honsou) leads a revolt against the Spanish slave traders on the ship. Due to their lack of knowing how to properly navigate a ship, Sengbe and the rest of the Africans find themselves landing in an American port and are swiftly arrested by Naval officers. The captives are once again locked in jail where they await trial for murder and cases involving property rights. This attracts the attention of abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) who enlists the help of property lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to represent the captives in a court of law. The proceedings actually keep favoring Baldwin’s arguments, but it doesn’t take long for President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) to intercede and take the matters to the Supreme Court. With their case quickly spiraling out of control, Joadson, Baldwin, and Sengbe recruit the help of former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to stand up for the Africans’ rights in the highest court of the land.

Amistad is the first film Spielberg made with Dreamworks, and at this point it’s hard to believe there was a time that he wasn’t working with this company. This was the time when Spielberg was really showing what he had to offer. This is epic film making that only got better with Saving Private Ryan. The production design of this movie is top of the line with sets that seem to live and breathe. I am really interested in this time period, so I may be a little bit biased to praise movies that so completely bring this era to life. While the set design and costumes already stand tall, there are other factors that exist to completely draw you into the world of this movie. The first is John Williams’ beautiful and often sweeping score. The other is Janusz Kamiński’s eye catching cinematography that was also put on display with Spielberg’s previous movie, Schindler’s List.

Like I said earlier, Amistad is an epic movie that really takes its time in telling the story and making sure all of the information is clear to the audience. This is both a good and a bad thing. While there is plenty of dramatic momentum moving the story forward, it’s hard to ignore that this can be an overly wordy movie. There are some moments where you have to stop and think of people really talk like the characters in this movie do. The writing is mostly spot on, but there are times when it becomes a little bit too theatrical when a general rule for film making is to show the audience information and not outright tell them. There’s one scene in particular that really stands out. There’s a scene where John Quincy Adams is addressing the Supreme Court, and it’s clear that Spielberg was really into shooting this scene, and for a while it’s incredible. It’s an amazing speech that unfortunately never seems to end. There were at least three different times where I thought that the speech was over, but then the camera would change and Hopkins would continue on. It became almost comical.

While this movie does get a little wordy and bogged down in over the top dramatic soliloquies, the people delivering these lines are all megastars in their own rights. This is a great cast with Freeman, McConaughey, Honsou, and Hopkins all knocking it out of the park. McConaughey and Honsou especially work great together and their getting to learn to understand each other while not speaking the same language is my favorite part of the whole movie. I do feel like Morgan Freeman was underutilized and only has a few memorable scenes where I feel like he was actually given something to do. Finally, Hopkins isn’t in the movie all that much, but when he is it feels like I’m watching the real John Quincy Adams and not an actor playing the part. Few actors can pull that off as well as Hopkins can.

Amistad has all the working of a memorable and epic Steven Spielberg movie. It’s filled with a cast of great actors, excellent music, and fantastic production design. It also is a little bit overdone in some parts, which can either add more of an entertainment quality or come off as something a little less respectable. This isn’t Spielberg’s finest achievement, but it is one that I feel doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. Personally, I thought it was a great movie and it’s one that I’d love to watch again. It tells an excellent story, and while it may not be totally historically accurate, it’s a pretty epic way to spend an afternoon.

Final Grade: A-

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