Anyone who thought that Schindler’s List was an aberration on Steven Spielberg’s part surely would reconsider that position after seeing Amistad (starring Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, and Anthony Hopkins). This is as stark and unsentimental — in other words, the most unSpielbergian — a film as I’ve seen in a long time.
Amistad opens with the 1839 slave mutiny on the ship of the same name, and the scene is brilliant visual storytelling. The nighttime battle is depicted, unflinching in its brutality, in glimpses during flashes of lightning, driving rain washing over the carnage and thunder punctuating it. What little dialogue there is is mostly untranslated, but there is never a question what is going on.
The Amistad comes ashore on Long Island, and the slaves end up in custody with various parties of whites fighting over ownership — the surviving Amistad slavers, the eleven-year-old queen of Spain, the navy officers who “salvaged” the Amistad. An unpretentious lawyer (McConaughey) — with the help of John Quincy Adams (Hopkins) and Cinque (Hounsou), the leader of the slaves by dint of instigating the revolt — defends their right to freedom.
What surprised me the most, I think, about Amistad was how matter-of-fact it was. McConaughey’s lawyer, for example, was simply interested in the slaves’ case from the point of view of property law. The film does not shy away from poking fun at the rather patronizing Christians who sing and pray for the slaves at the jail where they’re imprisoned. Even the abolitionists — the slaves’ biggest supporters — are not universally portrayed in a flattering manner; one, in particular, is shown to be more interested in the cause of abolition than the slaves themselves. Only the slavers are straightforward — they’re greedy and murderous, yes, but they aren’t hypocritical about it.