Steven Spielberg’s Amistad is an important, if imperfect, telling of a true historical event. With conviction and purpose, the story of abducted Africans, sold into slavery, who revolt against their captors only to then be placed on trial in the American courts, is told by a gifted filmmaker and portrayed by actors at the top of their games, particular Djimon Hounsou as Cinque. In fact, the scene where Hounsou’s Cinque character describes his abduction, abuse, and transport in the brutal conditions of a slave ship, is impossible to watch without horror and tears. The grotesque scenes of inhumanity are at times unbearable. But such depravity, as a documented chapter in human history, must be seen in all its revolting awfulness as a reminder that such unspeakable depravity lasted for years upon years. And Amistad offers us just a glimpse of the injustices of slavery at a time in history where the trading of slaves was illegal, but the owning of slaves was not.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HDMA, Spanish 2.0 DD, French 5.1 DD, Other
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish, French, Portuguese
Run Time: 155 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-rayStandard Case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 05/06/2014
The Production Rating: 4/5
“GIVE US, US FREE”Aboard the ship La Amistad, 53 African captives, members of the Mende people, broke free, overcoming and killing all but two of their captors, and then set about to make their way home. The surviving crew of the Spanish ship were kept alive to navigate the ship back to the Sierra Leon, home of the Mende, but instead steered the two-masted schooner to the shores of America. The Africans were recaptured and imprisoned and the surviving Spanish crew freed. Initially charged with murder, the plight of the abductees became a tangled legal battle pitting the Africans, whose insurrection would become a matter of debate in the American courts, against a nervous Executive branch of the American Government, who sought to quiet the case as the president, Van Buren, pursued re-election, and against the Spanish Queen and her interests that Spanish ‘property’ be returned.
By 1839 treaties were in place outlawing the trading of slaves and thus the legal entanglement for the Africans revolt on the La Amistad was not a mere matter of a captives rising against their captors, but of the definition of ‘slave’ at that time, if that definition applied, if the Africans fell under the purview of salvage rights for property, and whether the La Amistad was in the commission of a crime (according to the treaties), rendering the uprising legal.
Amistad is a sadly underrated film in the works of director Steven Spielberg. Introducing the dramatic uprising as the film opens with wordless brutality, the story takes perhaps a surprising turn by evolving quickly into a legal drama (albeit with weighty and historic matters at play). The fight for freedom on the high seas that saw a Spanish crew overrun by escaping slaves and slain, only to be navigated to the shores of America by two surviving crew members, was, prior to Spielberg’s film, little known, though it has a place in the annals of history of Americas ultimate descent into civil war, though likely a considerably smaller role than the film conveys.
Though not all of the surrounding historical facts in the film are tendered accurately (President Van Buren, for example, did not orchestrate the removal of the original presiding judge, the Castilian slave traders were not ordered arrested as part of one of the successful rulings for the Africans, and other liberties for dramatic or visual purposes are made here and there), the story of the slave uprising and subsequent legal tale is still engrossing, maddening, and triumphant nonetheless.
Visually, Amistad isn’t as striking as other deeply human tales Spielberg has shared (The Color Purple and his most recent Lincoln are both visually magnificent). Even the cinematography by the master of shadow and light, Janusz Kaminski, tends to temper the typical flourishes and commanding aesthetic in favor of less visual drama (though he did receive an Academy Award nomination for cinematography here). And so the power of Amistad rests entirely upon the authoritative performances and the captivating story at hand. The tale is compelling and the performances are superb, with Djimon Hounsou gifting us a magnanimous performance, fiercely portraying the role of the intelligent and resolute soul of Cinque. A fish far out of water, forced to abide the bizarre (and corruptible) procedures of the American court system, Hounsou imbues Cinque with a masterful combination of emotional complexity and defiance. Truly a phenomenal performance.
As Roger Sherman Baldwin, chief lawyer for the Mende slaves, Matthew McConaughey shows off what he ultimately proved (in recent years with turns in Mud, Dallas Buyer’s Club and HBO’s True Detective) what he was more than capable of – serious, dialogue-intensive drama, and conviction in his performance. Morgan Freeman, relatively underutilized as abolitionist Theodore Joadson, is sound, executing the few moments where he is given focus (and many others where he is merely a quiet, yet strong presence), with care.
Anthony Hopkins’ Academy Award nominated turn as former president John Quincy Adams is delightful. He plays former president with a cantankerous certitude, providing wit and weight. The moments between he and Hounsou’s Cinque are marvelously crafted, occurring on the precipice of Hopkins’ turn in front of the Supreme Court, arguing for the release of the African’s in one of greatest courtroom speeches ever committed to film (which Hopkins reportedly delivered all seven pages of in a single take, much to the awe of Spielberg and crew). The speech is subtle, quietly stirring, resounding in its prosecution of the truth of humanity, and performed with perfection.
Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin Van Buren, David Paymer as Secretary of State John Forsyth, the late Pete Postlethwaite as Prosecutor William S. Holabird, Stellan Skarsgard as abolitionist Leis Tappan, and notably Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ensign James Covey, the member of the U.S Navy whom the defense team find to serve as translator to the imprisoned Africans in his theatrical debut, each provide solid supporting performances.
Spielberg again renders a deeply human story with flashes of brutality, with John William’s again scoring with subtly and emotional tugs that pull powerfully. Despite the seriousness of the story, screenwriter David Franzoni, working with Spielberg, find chance for levity, exploiting the clash of cultures, with the Africans being entirely unaccustomed to American society and its courts and customs, systems and silliness. The language barrier, too, becomes fodder for levity amongst the weightiness of the proceedings.
There is imperfection in Spielberg’s aspirant Amistad. The story of the slave revolt aboard the ship La Amistad is an important moment after slave trading had been outlawed, finally, by the United States. But it is just one such tale in a pantheon of unheard stories of tragedy and triumph that marks the grotesqueries of the slave era in America. And as such, Amistad lacks context. It lacks the longer view of slavery to be coupled with this fascinating, localized tale of triumph in the American courts of the slaves of La Amistad.
Amistad makes its bow on Blu-ray, finally, and looks splendid. A terrifically detailed image, faithful to its 35mm film origins, is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Natural in its aesthetic approach, the modest colors and somewhat muted tones of the courtroom are accompanied by bright scenes on the high seas during daylight. Flawlessly presented.
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The opening sequence, as Cinque painfully works to free himself of his chains, is remarkable in its clarity and detail. Any fears of this lesser-appreciated Spielberg film being given short shrift for its HD debut are put to rest in those opening minutes, and the quality holds up throughout.
Featuring an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, Amistad’s audio is fully immersive during the opening sequence and again during the harrowing recounting of the Mende peoples capture and abhorrent treatment by the slave traders. The precision of sound among the channels is excellent. And once the proceedings move to the courtroom drama, and to a predominantly dialogue driven audio (with John William’s score providing masterful underscore and haunting echoes as the scene commands), the audio retains precision and clarity.
Audio Rating: 4.5/5
The special features are where this release falls down (and the only area in which this release disappoints). With a behind the scenes featurette falling shy of 30 minutes and an HD trailer for the film, there’s little here to celebrate.
Special Features Rating: 1.5/5
The Making of Amistad
Theatrical Trailer (HD)
Amistad is deeply moving. An underrated accomplishment in Steven Spielberg’s filmography that, despite its enormously compelling story and the performances that give it life, must be faulted for deviations from documented history. This story, in its unfettered truth, is engrossing and important enough not to have warranted the dramatic licenses taken.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Still, this does not diminish the importance of the story itself and therein lies the power of Amistad. It is a fascinating and at often infuriating story. Wholly accurate historic tales in cinema are a considerable rarity and so it is our responsibility to learn more about those moments in history that inspire deeper understanding. And the story of the insurrection aboard the slave ship La Amistad certainly inspires a desire for deeper understanding.
Amistad comes highly recommended.
Reviewed By: Neil Middlemiss
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