Spielberg returns to another examination of humanity and history with his 1997 film Amistad. Based on an actual event in 1839, the film explores a revolt of Mende captives aboard the Spanish ship La Amistad.
When the captives take over the ship they demand that the surviving crew take them back to Africa, but instead, they end up off the coast of Long Island and their mere existence proves to be a controversy for the United States, and its president.
Djimon Honsou plays Cinque the leader of the Mende who literally fights for his freedom, and his right to return to his family in Africa, but according to the cruelty and greed of men, he and his fellows are seen as not much more than livestock and property.
A pair of Abolishinists, Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) work to represent the captured men, intent on arguing for their freedom. They are aided by Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) who is a property lawyer.
Trial after trial is held to show that all men are free, not only the ones of a certain place. If all people aren’t free, then none are.
But for every advance they make, some treaty, law or political situation works to trump the fact that these people were taken, illegally, from their homes, and brutally forced into slavery. Do the laws of men trump a person’s very right to exist and be free?
They are aided by Ensign Covery (Chiwitel Ejiofor) as translator and John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), whose record shows he was an Abollishinist, and the connections Baldwin and Cinque make across language and cultural barriers are inspiring.
It’s a powerful tale that resonates today, as racism and greed-driven politics continue to gain momentum.
Spielberg balances the courtroom side of events with glimpses into the humanity of all sides, reminding the viewer that we’re all the same. Throw in a score by John Williams, and this one soars. Spielberg packed his film with a cadre of amazing actors and scored four Oscar nominations, including a nod to Hopkins for Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Costume, and Best Score.
It’s frightening that a mentality that let people think slaves were a good thing ever existed, or that the mindset that helped create that, and the racism that spread from it, could still be around today.
I love the fact that Spielberg can switch from delivering magical escapist films, and then turn around and give us a solid look at ourselves through historical events that are still relevant.
Spielberg knows how to tell his stories, knows how to elicit an emotional reaction, and make you think about what you’re being shown, and that is how changes are made.
We can be better.