Written by David Franzoni
Directed by Steven Speilberg
I have to admit that my greatest emotion after having seen this movie was anger… Anger that I never learned of this incident throughout my school years. Despite being and Advanced Placement student, not one of my courses ever touched on the La Amistad incident.
One could suppose that in the annals of history, the La Amistad incident was not a direct cause to the Civil War, as such things as The Dred Scott Decision and The Missouri Compromise are deemed to be. Still, it was a very important even in American History that had to so with the issue of slavery.
The question I keep asking myself is why wasn’t this taught?
The answer is that I just don’t know.
La Amistad is the name of a Spanish ship that was illegally bringing captured Africans to Cuba in 1839 to be sold into slavery. Before arriving in Cuba, the slaves stage an uprising and take over the vessel, intending to return to Africa.
The cinematography that begins this movie is magnificent and brilliant. We see an enslaved man in the shadows escaping his bonds and helping others do the same as it is raining and dark. The shadows played brilliantly on the screen and gave the whole uprising an even more chilling effect.
The ship manages to land off the coast of Long Island and the slaves are then taken into bondage once again. Now the legal maneuvering begins between the 11 year-old Spanish Queen, Isabella, the ship which captures the slaves and tries to claim them as proceeds, the two remaining crewmen of La Amistad, and the abolitionists who seem to want them freed.
Sengbe (portrayed excellently by Djimon Hounsou) emerges as the leader of the captured slaves. I have to say I actually enjoyed the use of subtitles in this movie and am glad they did not have him speak English. In fact, the first scene where Sengbe and the lawyer, Roger Baldwin (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) are trying to communicate has to be one of the funniest uses of subtitles I’ve seen.
As serious as this movie is, it does have it’s lighter moments. Seeing how the various Africans divided up their prison into different “lands” and then move Roger around between them was another bit of humor.
Watching Sengbe try to understand the intricacies of the American judicial system as well as the diplomatic relations at stake was enlightening. His symbolism in the story of how he killed the lion applied the same here; only the lion he had to slay was the American courts.
The first judge is removed from the case. A new judge who is Roman Catholic (so supposedly more in line with Spain’s position) and young with his whole career ahead of him is put in place. This is President Van Buren trying to manipulate the outcome of the verdict. The judge, however, after praying over the case commits political suicide and finds for the Africans and orders them to be returned to their country.
I found this point of the movie to be very good as a Christian. How many of the supposedly religious people who lead our country would commit political suicide to do something they feel is morally correct? I’d venture a guess not many… The symbolism as the Africans attempted to interpret the bible through pictures was not lost on me either and I thought it added another great dimension to the story.
The next bit of maneuvering brings the case before the Supreme Court with seven of the nine sitting judges being Southern Plantation owners. At the behest of Baldwin, John Quincy Adams (portrayed magnificently by Anthony Hopkins) gives a rambling argument before the judges.
This is an important movie for students to see, even if it is a bit disturbing at times. There can be a great deal of discussion generated, both from a human aspect and a legal one. I found the scenes depicting the Africans’ capture and transport aboard the ships to be quite disturbing – even more than I remember Roots scenes being when I first saw them. This part is told by Sengbe (given the name Joseph Cinque by his captors) in flashback and is quite effective. Watching a woman die while giving birth after being captured, then another woman throw herself and the baby overboard while watching the punishment of other slaves left a knot in my stomach, as did the scene of slaves being thrown overboard to drown when the crew realizes it has miscalculated their provisions.
The other side of the coin is that the abolitionists are no saints either. They are looking at the situation as a way to further their cause, not as thirty nine human beings whose lives are at stake. At one point there is a suggestion of martyrdom, although the Africans have no knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes.
As I mentioned before, the cinematography in just about ever scene is fantastic. When the case is won the first time and the Africans celebrate with a bonfire while Baldwin tries to deliver the bad news about it being appealed to the Supreme Court is another great use of shadows and contrasts.
Steven Spielberg directed and his attention to every detail and camera angle is very apparent in the final product. Though it logs in at a long 2 1/2 hours, there is not a single unnecessary scene within.
All of the actors do a great job. Morgan Freeman’s character Joadson was a highlight for me, however. During the scenes as they were looking for evidence aboard the slave ship and he was visualizing what the chains and shackles were used for, his face conveyed so much without uttering a word.
I have always maintained that when you’re dealing with Hollywood and history, it’s the job of Hollywood to generate enough interest in it’s historical subject that a viewer will seek out additional information. This movie definitely piqued that interest for me. A wide variety of links about the La Amistad incident can be found at http://www.amistad.org
The DVD version of this movie contains the usual extras of the theatrical trailer, production notes, and a full cast and crew listing. Also present is a documentary on the making of the movie and I think that is also well worth watching.
To buy the Amistad blu-ray, click on the picture below to be directed to my Amazon Associates account. I receive a small commission if you purchase through this link.