Stephen Spielberg's "Amistad" (1997)



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A Dreamworks production
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Screenwriter: David Franzoni
Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Music: John Williams
(R, 145 minutes)


Cinque: Djimon Honsou
Roger Baldwin: Matthew McConaughey
John Quincy Adams: Anthony Hopkins
Theodore Joadson: Morgan Freeman
Lewis Tappan: Stellan Skarsgard
President Martin Van Buren: Nigel Hawthorne
Professor Josiah Gibbs: Austin Pendleton
Senator John Calhoun: Arliss Howard
Justice Joseph Story: Justice Harry A. Blackmun
Queen Isabella: Anna Paquin
Secretary Forsyth: David Paymer
William Holabird: Pete Postlethwaite
British Naval Officer: Peter Firth



The New Republic, Stanley Kaufmann, December 22, 1997

Spielberg puts people before us, not costumed actors, and he puts us among those people. The very first shot, an intense close-up of a black man, dirt-caked and wet, as lightening flashes, as he struggles to pull his shackles loose in the ship's hold, not only crystallizes the them; it seizes us with verity, the sense that a vital film making talent is striking toward the truth.

The film depends greatly on the performance of Cinque, and here Spielberg's choice can only be called brilliant. Djimon Hounsou is a native of Benin who has been living in Paris and has had small roles in French and American films. He is a magnificent-looking man, but it is his spirit, more than his physique, that fulfills the role.

Amistad, shortcomings and all, is solid, engrossing. While it's in progress, it envelops us; paradoxically, when it's finished, it seems to stand free, like a strong sculpture.

The New York Times, Janet Maslin, December 10, 1997

The diffuse "Amistad" divides its energies among many concerns: the pain and strangeness of the captives' experience, the Presidential election in which they become a factor, the stirrings of civil war, and the great many bewhiskered abolitionists and legal representatives who argue about their fate. The specific, as in Cinque's being torn from his family, is overwhelmed by generality. And this is a film in which John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins as a wise old curmudgeon faithfully devoted to his house plants, is the zestiest character by far.

None of the rhetoric, not even the oratorical heights reached when John Quincy Adams takes on the Supreme Court, can compare with the Africans' story. And the best parts of "Amistad" are those that simply bring their pride, fear and outrage to life.

The Washington Post, Rita Kempley, December 12, 1997

Steven Spielberg's powerful "Amistad" again demonstrates the director's flair for bringing lost worlds alive. . . . "Amistad" boasts a star-spangled cast that includes Nigel Hawthorne as pro-slavery President Martin Van Buren, Anna Paquin as the pubescent Queen Isabella of Spain, and Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard as abolitionists who champion the Africans' cause. Though Freeman has a smallish part, he leaves an indelible impression. As he searches the Amistad's dank hold for evidence, he's staggered by the chains and bloodstains, but most of all by the ghosts from his past. Hounsou, a West African model with beauty and presence, but no acting experience, carries much of the movie on his broad shoulders with surprising skill and strength. His is one of only a few African characters, however, who emerge from the rest. And he emerges with dignity intact, even when obliged to become teary-eyed upon sniffling an African violet (which has no scent) in Adam's greenhouse.

Star Tribune, (Minneapolis, MN), Jeff Strickler, December 12, 1997 ***** 5 Stars

The shipboard rebellion is shown in frank, disturbing fashion. Then the movie settles into a period-piece courtroom drama. Despite the all-star cast, the performance that stands out comes from an unknown: Djimon Hounsou, a native of West Africa. He plays Cinque, the Africans' emotional and physical leader. Hounsou does an exquisite job of conveying a wide range of emotions--confusion, fear, rage, sadness--a task complicated considerably by the fact that his character doesn't speak English.

The San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann, December 12, 1997

*** 3 Stars

An admirable but disappointing effort, Spielberg uses a more conventional format than he did in the stripped-down, black-and-white "Schindler's List," and delivers a film that veers between stoic political correctness and mushy pop-Hollywood platitudes.

Hopkins makes the most of his moments as the crusty but wise Adams, and Hounsou, the standout in the cast, brings a magnificent, fierce integrity to Cinque. Freeman is wasted, however, as the slave-turned-abolitionist Theodore Joadson, while McConaughey is close to embarrassing with his mutton chops, wire-rimmed specs and broad gesturing.

Even with the excesses of Spielberg's showy technique and Hallmark emotion, this is a wonderful story that needed to be told.

The Dallas Morning News, Philip Wuntch, December 12, 1997

What Amistad lacks is a strong emotional current to flow gracefully with its rush of historical detail. There are only a few characters to care about, and your tears are for their physical circumstances rather than their individual psyches. Sadly, Amistad reinforces its director's primary weakness, an over-dependence on Movie Shorthand to flesh out his characters.

Considering the secrecy that always shrouded the historical event, better a flawed Amistad than no Amistad. But you can't shake the gnawing feeling that Amistad could have been a masterpiece.

The Denver Post, Steven Rosen, December 12, 1997

The story is a complex one, and in following it, the movie loses the kind of thrillingly direct narrative thrust that captivates moviegoers.

"Amistad" is inspired when showing us America through its African prisoners' eyes. When a Christian group kneels in front of the imprisoned Africans to pray, the bewildered audience wonders if the visitors are "entertainers." When the lowly, bumbling real-estate lawyer Roger Baldwin (a very good McConaughey) is appointed the Africans' attorney, one says--in Mende--"I have a horrible feeling he speaks for us."

Quincy Adams' final speech to the Supreme Court--condensed and adapted from the real one--will give you goosebumps. "If it be civil war, let it come," he says. "And if it does, may it be the last battle of the American Revolution."

The Boston Herald, December 12, 1997

Spielberg has chosen his cast with great care (with the notable exception of a badly miscast McConaughey).

Since Cinque speaks only Mende, Hounsou must deliver an extraordinarily physical performance, delivering much of it in a kind of anguished mime. When Hounsou stands up in court in one scene and shouts the few crucial words Cinque knows, the look on Hounsou's face will rivet you to your seat.

For his part, Hopkins seems to mumble lines he doesn't like and nail the ones he does like an Olympic vaulter.

Amistad is both entertaining and enlightening.

The Rocky Mountain News, Maslin, December 19, 1997

(C+) Steven Spielberg's rendering of history plays like a massive term paper.

Time, December 29, 1997

(7th best movie of 1997) Again [Spielberg] unsentimentally places us in touch with our best sentiments.

Entertainment Weekly, January 16, 1998

(C) Amistad is two and a half hours of black men sitting around in chains waiting to be given their freedom.