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AMISTAD

by: Scott Renshaw

AMISTAD is no SCHINDLER'S LIST. Think it unfair if you must, but Steven Spielberg is going to face comparisons like that for the rest of his film-making career. In the case of AMISTAD, those comparisons are going to be even harder to avoid, given the proximity in time (it's Spielberg's first "serious" film since the Oscar-winning SCHINDLER in 1993), the subject matter (the trials of an oppressed people) and the situational familiarity (if it's the December after a Spielberg dinosaur movie, it must be time for a Spielberg fact-based historical epic). Spielberg may never make another SCHINDLER'S LIST -- even the most successful home run hitter isn't likely to knock two World Series-winning grand slams -- but he did raise his personal bar. Now that we know what he's capable of, we're not going to let him get away with choosing less than stellar material.

AMISTAD is hardly a half-hearted effort; in fact, there are a couple of scenes which rank with Spielberg's best work as a director. It is, however, a piece of material which ends up providing far less impact than it should. The film is based on the true story of an 1840s court case involving 44 black men and women, led by Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), accused of piracy for an uprising against their capters on the Spanish slaving ship "La Amistad." Found off the coast of Long Island by a U.S. Navy ship, the blacks become the subject of an intense and controversial series of legal challenges. Are they the property of the two surviving members of the "Amistad" crew? Are they the property of Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin)? Are they the property of the naval officers who claim salvage rights? Or are they the property of no one, free men illegally captured from their homes in Africa?

It is the latter point which is argued by attorney Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), assisted by abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgaard), with further assistance from former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). Faced with direct opposition from struggling incumbent President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne, looking even more befuddled than he did in THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE) as the case becomes a flashpoint for Southern grumbling over the slavery issue, Baldwin tries to overcome a profound language gap and get Cinque to tell his own story. AMISTAD is at its best when Cinque is telling his story, allowing the electrifying performance of Djimon Hounsou to take center stage. Though he utters only half a dozen English words through the entire film, Hounsou's impassioned work brings to life an intelligent man trying to understand a thoroughly perplexing new world. He is the heart and soul of AMISTAD.

If it had ever been made clear that AMISTAD is Cinque's story, the film could have been a masterpiece. Instead, David Franzoni's script allows too many characters to flirt with the impression that the story is all about them. Freeman, as a former slave turned anti-slavery advocate, somehow gets first billing despite disappearing for most of the film; McConaughey plays his noble lawyer from A TIME TO KILL with mutton chops, but without a sense of what the case means to him; Hopkins' borderline-senile Adams has little to do before delivering his oration before the Supreme Court. Franzoni also tosses off one of the story's most crucial pieces of historical trivia -- that while slavery was still legal in 1839, capturing Africans was not -- as though it were common knowledge. The "Amistad" case was a messy piece of history, but the script only serves to make it messier, obscuring the human drama in a muddle of over-plotting.

When AMISTAD does give the Africans' plight its undivided attention, it's a gripping piece of film-making. As he did with the horror of the concentration camps, Spielberg provides unflinching images of the horrors of slave ships without exploiting those horrors. He also creates a splendid se

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