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Amistad Blu-ray Review

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#1 of 9 Neil Middlemiss

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Posted May 09 2014 - 07:55 PM

Amistad Blu-ray Review

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.


Cover Art


Studio: Paramount

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

Rating: R

Run Time: 155 Min.

Package Includes: Blu-ray

Standard Case

Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)

Region: A

Release Date: 05/06/2014

MSRP: $22.98




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.



Video Rating: 4.5/5  3D Rating: NA

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.

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.



Audio Rating: 4.5/5

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.



Special Features Rating: 1.5/5

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.

The Making of Amistad

Theatrical Trailer (HD)



Overall Rating: 4/5

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.

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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#2 of 9 Adam Lenhardt

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Posted May 09 2014 - 08:51 PM

Thanks for the review, Neil.

 

I love the first two-thirds or so of this movie, but where it falls apart for me is in the final act. A transcript of John Quincy Adams's real oral argument before the Supreme Court for this case is part of the public record. I didn't expect the movie to portray his remarks in their entirety, but I did expect an accurate encapsulation of them. Instead we get a Movie Moment that services the screenwriter's themes but does not seem wholly convincing to a Supreme Court predisposed against the former president's clients.

 

That being said, I love Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of John Quincy Adams in this movie.



#3 of 9 PaulDA

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Posted May 10 2014 - 08:27 AM

This is a film I often use, in excerpts, when I teach slavery in my US history classes. I have, on occasion, assigned the entire film, but only when I have the time to fully explore its weaknesses as well as its strengths (the Middle Passage depiction is an excellent, if highly disturbing, way to get the message across to students about the sheer brutality and horror of that voyage--essentially unchanged for 300+ years (not always with the US as a final destination, though).

 

I did my graduate work on the influence of historical feature films on the public's perception of history and Amistad is a prime example of a film that has many teachable moments, though perhaps not necessarily those intended by the filmmaker. I won't go into too much detail here (I have a stack of papers to mark staring at me in the face) but a quick point or two will do.

 

One--as I said, the depiction of the Middle Passage is powerful and a very useful tool. No text or lecture I could give would have the same impact. This portion of the film illustrates the strength of historical feature films and represents a justification for resisting the temptation, powerful among academic historians, to summarily dismiss such films as "useless fluff". The biggest undeserved criticism of historical feature films, in my view, is an overly narrow focus on "accuracy" at the expense of "authenticity" (I mean that word in its colloquial sense--"authenticity" is a loaded word in the social sciences and the humanities, but I'm not using it in that way). Films are a very different mode of transmission of historical information and they deserve their own set of criteria by which they should be judged, rather than the direct comparison to more traditional forms like books, scholarly journals and the like. The works of Natalie Zemon Davis and Robert Brent Toplin, as well as John O'Conner, are very informative on this point and I recommend them. Shortest bit of advice: historical feature films should always be viewed as the beginning of one's exploration of a subject, not the final word.

 

Two--Despite my aversion to the obsession with factual accuracy when critiquing historical feature films, I do not advocate for letting them off the hook entirely. There are a number of narrative liberties that, in my view, were unnecessary but are frequently found in other films of this genre, as they are the product of many, many people working in concert (not all of whom are either versed or interested by the nuances of historical fact checking), so I won't produce an exhaustive list. I will point to one that has a clear narrative purpose but that raises a question I often pose to my students when similar situations arise in historical feature films. Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) is a fictional character. He serves as a narrative focus to represent the black perspective in the abolition movement (one too frequently overlooked in academic work up until 20 years or so ago). However, as the character is surrounded by actual historical figures, any actions on his part that have a significant effect on the story pose historical problems as they lead the story further from actual events. Narratively, the actions fit the story just fine, though, which is why the character is there. So I ask my students why the filmmakers felt it necessary to create a fictional character in this instance? (answers are multiple and varied, but include references to narrative flow). A similar kind of question is raised in The Patriot (far less valuable as a history lesson, but a very good teaching tool nonetheless). Why is Mel Gibson's character, a South Carolina plantation owner in the 1770s, not a slaveholder? (I leave it to forum members to respond.) In the end, flawed historical feature films are frequently valuable as prompters of discussion and the exploration of important historical themes. As such, they are useful, despite their limitations (and often in ways unintended by the filmmakers). 


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#4 of 9 Neil Middlemiss

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Posted May 11 2014 - 04:32 PM

This is a film I often use, in excerpts, when I teach slavery in my US history classes. I have, on occasion, assigned the entire film, but only when I have the time to fully explore its weaknesses as well as its strengths (the Middle Passage depiction is an excellent, if highly disturbing, way to get the message across to students about the sheer brutality and horror of that voyage--essentially unchanged for 300+ years (not always with the US as a final destination, though).

 

I did my graduate work on the influence of historical feature films on the public's perception of history and Amistad is a prime example of a film that has many teachable moments, though perhaps not necessarily those intended by the filmmaker. I won't go into too much detail here (I have a stack of papers to mark staring at me in the face) but a quick point or two will do.

 

One--as I said, the depiction of the Middle Passage is powerful and a very useful tool. No text or lecture I could give would have the same impact. This portion of the film illustrates the strength of historical feature films and represents a justification for resisting the temptation, powerful among academic historians, to summarily dismiss such films as "useless fluff". The biggest undeserved criticism of historical feature films, in my view, is an overly narrow focus on "accuracy" at the expense of "authenticity" (I mean that word in its colloquial sense--"authenticity" is a loaded word in the social sciences and the humanities, but I'm not using it in that way). Films are a very different mode of transmission of historical information and they deserve their own set of criteria by which they should be judged, rather than the direct comparison to more traditional forms like books, scholarly journals and the like. The works of Natalie Zemon Davis and Robert Brent Toplin, as well as John O'Conner, are very informative on this point and I recommend them. Shortest bit of advice: historical feature films should always be viewed as the beginning of one's exploration of a subject, not the final word.

 

Two--Despite my aversion to the obsession with factual accuracy when critiquing historical feature films, I do not advocate for letting them off the hook entirely. There are a number of narrative liberties that, in my view, were unnecessary but are frequently found in other films of this genre, as they are the product of many, many people working in concert (not all of whom are either versed or interested by the nuances of historical fact checking), so I won't produce an exhaustive list. I will point to one that has a clear narrative purpose but that raises a question I often pose to my students when similar situations arise in historical feature films. Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) is a fictional character. He serves as a narrative focus to represent the black perspective in the abolition movement (one too frequently overlooked in academic work up until 20 years or so ago). However, as the character is surrounded by actual historical figures, any actions on his part that have a significant effect on the story pose historical problems as they lead the story further from actual events. Narratively, the actions fit the story just fine, though, which is why the character is there. So I ask my students why the filmmakers felt it necessary to create a fictional character in this instance? (answers are multiple and varied, but include references to narrative flow). A similar kind of question is raised in The Patriot (far less valuable as a history lesson, but a very good teaching tool nonetheless). Why is Mel Gibson's character, a South Carolina plantation owner in the 1770s, not a slaveholder? (I leave it to forum members to respond.) In the end, flawed historical feature films are frequently valuable as prompters of discussion and the exploration of important historical themes. As such, they are useful, despite their limitations (and often in ways unintended by the filmmakers). 

 

I can't say that I disagree with any of this. Some of your points I captured in my review, but it's good to have your perspective (especially as a person who helps younger generations better understand the past).

 

As an aside, history was always one of my favourite subjects in school in part because my history teacher was so passionate about history, and aware enough not to dismiss other forms of introductions to history (film, for example, over thick textbooks).


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#5 of 9 sonomatom1

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Posted May 13 2014 - 11:15 AM

PaulDA: very interesting comments, and I'm embarrassed to admit that as much as I've enjoyed "The Patriot' for a very long time, and over repeated viewings, it has never occurred to me to ask why he wasn't a slave owner. Although not apparently rich, neither was the character poor. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the director was Roland Emmerich and not Steven Spielberg. A small point at this late date but intriguing nonentheless. Thanks for pointing out.



#6 of 9 PaulDA

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Posted May 18 2014 - 11:08 AM

PaulDA: very interesting comments, and I'm embarrassed to admit that as much as I've enjoyed "The Patriot' for a very long time, and over repeated viewings, it has never occurred to me to ask why he wasn't a slave owner. Although not apparently rich, neither was the character poor. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the director was Roland Emmerich and not Steven Spielberg. A small point at this late date but intriguing nonentheless. Thanks for pointing out.

Essentially, having Gibson's character be a slave-owner and also be the hero of the story was seen as too much of a gamble by all involved. I believe the filmmakers were selling the audience short. The implication of their decision is the audience is not intelligent enough to understand historical reality and would be unable to cope with the idea of slave-owner as hero. To be fair, that degree of nuance is not usually part and parcel of action-adventure movies, but if that was the case, they probably should have set the film in the northern colonies where non-slaveowners were more easily found. 

 

The major historical anachronisms (Gibson's character not owning slaves, the Green Dragoons wearing red coats, the young girl making the speech that shames the town into action, rather than having a middle-aged woman make that speech, etc.) make the film rather poor as a history "lesson" (even with all the latitude I usually grant films vs. more traditional forms of presentation). However, they do make for very good discussion fodder and illustrate a phenomenon that is true of more traditional presentations of history, albeit in a less direct way (and quite unintentionally). Among the things I tell my students, regardless of which history I'm teaching (US history, Middle Eastern history, European history, Canadian history or other), is that history is not a settled issue and that society asks questions of history that reflect its current concerns. There was a time when mediaeval history was considered a dead end, academically (when I was an undergrad). Now, it is among the hottest fields and has been for about 20 years. The reason? A heightened interest in women in mediaeval history--a parallel with the importance of women's issues in society today. There are many examples across numerous historical topics that show the same pattern. A film like The Patriot (and to a lesser degree, Amistad), commits anachronistic behaviour to reflect the expectations and interests of today--so we get a fictional black character (Joadson in Amistad) to give a voice to the black perspective on the abolitionist viewpoint in the film, we get a non-slave owner as a hero in The Patriot, to reflect the repugnance of slavery in today's society, we get an assertive young woman, to reflect the importance of women in prompting decisions of significance...and so on.

 

Of course, one of the most egregious flaws in calling the film The Patriot is the fact that Benjamin Martin (Gibson) does not act at all out of a sense of patriotism, at least not until very, very late into the film. He repeatedly rebuffs appeals to his patriotism and wishes to remain out of the conflict--until his son is killed. Then it becomes personal (you can almost hear the late Don Lafontaine narrating the trailer). While a perfectly understandable motive, revenge is the polar opposite of patriotism.

 

Anyway, the tension between the commercial responsibilities and the need to be mindful of history will always be present in such films. It is a tightrope walk that will never yield a perfect balance, but even imperfection of a significant measure can still make for useful material in the teaching and appreciation of history.


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#7 of 9 Adam Lenhardt

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Posted May 18 2014 - 01:20 PM

One thing I've always loved about this film, though, is that it never stops looking at the Amistad mutineers as human beings. A lesser movie would have seen them as objects of pity to be batted back and forth by Mr. Baldwin and the prosecution. Speilberg captured them as discrete individuals from various villages and cultures with discrete values, interests and desires. This was mainly captured through Djimon Hounsou's performance as Sengbe, but you saw it from the others too. The scene in their cell where we learn that the cell's territory has been divided up into various tribal allegiances is a perfect example. American films tend to look at Africa as this vast homogenous place, and that wasn't the case at all. I also loved the mutineer who pieced together the tenets of Christianity from the pictures in the bible he grabbed off of one of the praying abolitionists. And then, as they're heading into court, the shot of the three ship's masts framed like the three crosses on Golgotha in his Bible's illustration of the cruxifiction.


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#8 of 9 Bryan Tuck

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Posted May 31 2014 - 12:00 AM

Thanks for the review, Neil! I also always thought this was an underrated film. Not perfect (Thanks, PaulDA, for the very interesting analysis), but still worthy of attention.

 

Also, one of the big issues on the old DVD has been corrected for the Blu-ray, sort of. The DVD release of Amistad had player-generated subtitles for all text that showed up on screen. Subtitles, location supers, and even the titles at the end explaining the various characters' destinies (which were originally placed at different places around the screen) all ran across the bottom of the screen in blocky characters that looked kind of ugly.

 

On the Blu-ray, the titles are still all player-generated, but they are in a less obtrusive font, and they are placed in their correct positions on the screen. However... they still "pop" on and off, when in the actual film most of them, aside from the language subtitles, faded in and out. (For reference, see the version currently streaming on Netflix, which seems to be completely correct.)

 

I hate that I'm always so irked by these small things, but the titles were specifically designed to fade in and out to suit the mood of the scenes they accompanied. Having them pop like that makes the scenes feel a little less elegant. Minor, minor thing, I know, but it's still annoying, mainly because there's really no reason this couldn't have been done right.

 

Anyway, other than that, very nice release.


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#9 of 9 TravisR

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Posted May 31 2014 - 03:54 AM

On the Blu-ray, the titles are still all player-generated, but they are in a less obtrusive font, and they are placed in their correct positions on the screen. However... they still "pop" on and off, when in the actual film most of them, aside from the language subtitles, faded in and out. (For reference, see the version currently streaming on Netflix, which seems to be completely correct.)

I noticed the same thing but having just taken a look at the god awful subtitles on the DVD, I guess I was in a more forgiving mood simply because the Blu-ray subs weren't gigantic and yellow like the DVD. :)







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