002/2019 – Amistad
Steven Spielberg/1997/US/English/154 mins
Based on a real-life incident of illegally captured slaves from West Africa (the Mende) taking over their captors’ ship ‘La Amistad’, and then being captured by the American Navy to be subjects of trial for ownership, this is an impactful film. While it is no Schindler’s List, it does drive you to feel deeply the tribulations of people of colour who have constantly faced persecution.
There is a strong white saviour complex in the film, critics say. However, we do not see how a group of illegal slaves, who cannot communicate with the then establishment or even understand their ways, could have defended themselves in trial except for assistance from the men in position of power, who in the context of 1839 America were white men. This is not to say the dramatisation and the glorified speeches the advocates of anti-slavery, or the scenes involving Christianity coming to the Mende’s aid could have been somewhat toned down.
Craft-wise there is little to fault. The flashback scenes of how the Mende were captured, taken slaves, and a large part of their journey is a punch to the gut. We held our breath throughout, and couldn’t help but feel the horror of it, thanks to Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, and John Williams’ score. The courtroom scenes, and those involving communication between the Mende and the Americans have palpable tension depsite small bursts of comic relief — that is brilliant writing. Legends like Sir Anthony Hopkins (who delivered his 7-page courtroom speech in a single take), Sir Nigel Hawthorne, and Djimon Hounsou bring their characters to life. This movie is an example of everyone rising to accomplish the vision of the director.
An interesting symbolic bit, among many, was when John Quincy Adams (Hopkins), quoting the Mende, said they invoke the help of their ancestors when faced with trouble, is seen to be standing in front of a portrait of his own father, John Adams, also an American President.