Steven Spielberg’s Amistad is a movie that every American should see. It is a historical drama about the mutiny on the 1839 ship ‘la Amistad’ and the political trials that followed. From the violent opening sequence to the bittersweet ending, Amistad is a movie that will leave you with an ache in your heart and a lump in your throat.
Djimon Hounsou shines in his role as Cinque, an African man who is captured and taken from his home to be sold into slavery. Transported as property, under horrible conditions, Cinque finds an opportunity to free himself.
He and the other Africans on la Amistad escape, kill the crew members and try to head back to Africa. Unfortunately, they are intercepted by an American naval ship, recaptured, and taken to New England.
There they are charged with the murders of their captors and subjected to a lengthy trial, during which they are talked about and treated as property. Matthew McConaughey gives a compelling performance as real estate lawyer Robert Baldwin, who takes on the difficult case.
Faced with language and cultural barriers, he is eventually able to communicate with Cinque. He seeks the help of former president John Quincy Adams, convincingly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, and develops a strategy that he hopes will win an emotional trial.
Also pushing for the release of the Africans is abolitionist Theodore Joadson, brought to life by Morgan Freeman. His is a fictional, not historical, character that’s meant to represent the many abolitionists of the time who fought for the African’s cause. The case comes at a time when President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) is running for re-election. He comes to fear that the outcome of the case will affect his chances and that freeing the Africans will instigate a civil war.
He uses his power and influence to have the judge on the case removed and replaced with a judge of his choosing. To Van Buren’s surprise, Baldwin’s legal tactics prevail and he eventually wins the case. Van Buren feels the heat from his Southern colleagues and from Queen Isabella of Spain, who is hoping to have the “slaves” returned to Cuba since the ship was captured in Spanish waters. The president has the court’s decision overthrown and taken to the Supreme Court, where 7 of the 9 members are slave owners.
Those who are unfamiliar with the history of this case, as I was, will be shocked by the course of events in this movie. After subsequent research, I discovered that the film was almost completely historically accurate.
That knowledge made me feel sick to my stomach. When Cinque described the treatment that he and his fellow Africans received on the ship, I was stunned and horrified. For many of us, especially the younger generations, slavery seems so remote and far away that we rarely think of it. This movie brought it back into focus, and the reality is sickening.
Also disheartening is the fact that our justice system was so easily manipulated. That someone in a position of power could use the legal system for his own political gain. It begs the question: If it happened then, could it happen now? Does it happen now?
Amistad is a film that will make you take a look at the dark reality of the past. With Spielberg’s trademark passion and character development, it is moving and credible. I hope that Amistad has and will continue to spark serious thoughts and discussions. It is a movie that every American of every race should see.