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Out of Africa 

Wednesday, Dec 10 1997
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by David Franzoni. Starring Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman, Stellan Skarsgard, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins, and Nigel Hawthorne. Opens Friday, Dec. 12, at the Vogue and the Kabuki in S.F., and the Emery Bay, the Shattuck, and Jack London Square in the East Bay.

Was Steven Spielberg fated to make Amistad? "Amity," you might recall, was the name of the shark-bedeviled island in his breakthrough picture, Jaws; my dictionary defines it as "friendship, esp friendly relations between nations." Amistad, too, means "friendship" -- although the ship the movie is named for is a slave ship, and in August 1839 it catalyzed a rift between Spain and the United States and further polarized the North and South. Whether fated or not, Spielberg has pulled this movie off with the messy, overreaching passion of a man possessed.

On board La Amistad were dozens of newly enslaved Africans bound from Havana to the Cuban coastal town of Puerto Principe. Inspired by a natural leader named Cinque, they had thrown off their chains and killed the captain and ordered two surviving Spaniards to sail them back to Africa. Instead, the terrified whites surreptitiously guided the ship up the North American coastline. In Long Island Sound, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted it, freed the Spaniards, and took the Africans to a New Haven jail. The authorities saw the mutiny as plain piracy and murder. But abolitionists and independent thinkers like John Quincy Adams, the former president, viewed it as an example of the spirit of man rising up. A case that began in Connecticut ended in the Supreme Court. Queen Isabella II sniped at American presidents over Spanish property rights for roughly 20 years. Then the Civil War broke out, and it became a dead issue: Millions of Americans were fighting over the belief that blacks were humans, not property.

When Spielberg directed Jaws in 1975 (at the age of 27), he achieved instant renown as a precocious master of kinetic moviemaking. But what made Jaws work so spectacularly well was its exploratory verve -- the spontaneous, fly-on-the-beach flavor of the lulls between shark assaults, and the way the action drifted in and out of the camera's eye up to the moment of attack. Though it sounds blasphemous to say so, in its documentarylike vitality and total immersion in its subject matter, Schindler's List resembled Jaws more than either of Spielberg's cheerless pieces of dinosaur mechanics did.

So does the rich, potent Amistad. It has flaws, but lack of texture or spirit isn't one of them. Spielberg overworks the drama with symbols and swelling music, burdens it with a series of uplifting or sentimental climaxes, and tolerates the gauche performance of Matthew McConaughey as the Africans' lawyer. He's so anxious to get his points across that he repeats them, and at times slows the action down for emphasis. Yet the movie has tremendous scope and charge and a dense period fabric, along with a volcanic performance by Djimon Hounsou, the West African actor who plays Cinque. In addition to a raw, unblinking rendering of the slave trade -- a nightmare captured in harsh sunlight -- Amistad touches on international power politics, Southerners and Yankees jockeying in Washington, and the rule (and game) of law as practiced in state and federal courts.

Still, it turns out to be most of all about amity. When Cinque and John Quincy Adams come to a meeting of minds, Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins (as Adams) achieve a piercing limpidity: They team up to win the sympathetic understanding that makes friendship across borders and language barriers possible. In a daring move for a mass-audience picture (and a crucial one for its artistic success), the dynamic troupe of black actors speak in African tongues; most of their dialogue is subtitled.

The movie begins with the camera tightly focused on Cinque, as he strains to pull a nail out of a plank, then uses it to unshackle himself and his fellow slaves. His face and body drip with sweat, rain, and gore, but he's far from a simple image of the primitive unleashed. Hounsou gives the movie an intense center of consciousness; his face expresses what slavery and murder can take out of a hero. Hounsou's flashing eyes are never just the trademarks of a dashing personality -- they're semaphores of subterranean thoughts and intuitions. Throughout his marvelous performance, he plays psychic peekaboo with the audience, drawing viewers into a kind of creative complicity. He sparkles with perceptions and reactions, then swiftly covers them up, making us complete and sustain them. He puts the audience into a mind-lock. Even more than the fighting, atrocities, and judicial battles, Hounsou's interpretation of Cinque as a man of action and of wisdom imbues the film with suspense and immediacy. Your stake in his getting home isn't distant or abstract; you ache for him to reveal his greatness to the uncomprehending whites who jail, judge, and defend him. It's the movie's wonderfully satisfying conceit that in the congressman from Plymouth, John Quincy Adams -- former president, senator, diplomat, and Harvard professor, and, critically, a man of courage and principle -- Cinque finally finds his soul mate.

The forceful opening sequence, with its saber-edge design, gets across the awfulness and awkwardness of killing with a bayonet or a blade or even a slow-loading rifle. When Cinque buries a sword in the captain's chest, piercing through the planks of the deck, the act pinions our attention. Right away, Spielberg tells us that no matter how many vistas he paints of torture and incarceration, this will not be a mere spectacle of violence, nor will any individual slaughter be treated with 20th-century casualness. Even when he tries our patience, he makes good on his promise. As the movie sprawls from American campaign trails and African trade routes to the cramped quarters of slave holds, jails, and courtrooms, it continues to hold us, often at sword's point.

In Amistad, the murders -- and everything else -- are handmade. When the Africans try to forage on the North American shore and are taken aback by a man on a big-wheeled bicycle, the image does double duty: It brings home the distance between America and Africa, and between the mid-19th century and all of us. Spielberg transports us to a lost world of the past and we stay lost in it, despite John Williams' inflated score and McConaughey's tousled '90s looks. Some of the best parts of Amistad reminded me of Truffaut's The Wild Child (one of the films that inspired Spielberg to cast Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind), both in the director's use of physical details and everyday gestures to draw the contours of the time, and in the halting efforts of Cinque and his defense team to communicate. In The Wild Child (the story of an 18th-century doctor and a feral boy), Truffaut held down the emotionalism; in Amistad, Spielberg overdoes it -- but not fatally.

The narrative leaps (or lurches) up and down three social-political levels: First, there's the international realpolitik of Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin), President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), and his secretary of state, John Forsyth (David Paymer); then there's the scramble of abolitionists Lewis Tappan (Stellan SkarsgŒrd) and Thomas Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and attorney Roger Baldwin (McConaughey) to mount a credible defense; and through it all, the struggle of Cinque and the rest of the prisoners to suss out the sinister circus surrounding them.

The script (by David Franzoni, with an uncredited assist by Schindler's List adapter Steven Zaillian) shrewdly rearranges the actual court actions to focus on the most significant issues. These center on a treaty between Spain and the U.S. that called for "ships and merchandise" stolen on the high seas and "rescued out of the hands of any pirates or robbers" to be returned. The defense contended that the Africans had been hauled off to Cuba illegally, and could not be considered "pirates or robbers" or "merchandise."

Did Spielberg and company fear portraying the defense as a 19th-century Dream Team? The script pegs McConaughey's Roger Baldwin as a scruffy real estate solicitor who takes the case when no one else will. But Mary Cable's nonfiction account, Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slave Ship Amistad, says he "was the son of a well-known jurist and governor of Connecticut, while his grandfather had been a prominent revolutionary patriot." He was "an eloquent speaker," not a stumblebum, and rather than the only lawyer to volunteer for the case, he was part of a group that included the future founder of Yale Law School. The New York Express noted at the time, "The abolitionists have secured enough legal ability to delay anything til the end of the earth." Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to underscore the David-and-Goliath nature of the legal battle. Underscoring, though, is precisely what this film doesn't need. It encourages McConaughey to limn a portrait of a shyster-turned-idealist that is smirky and knowing in a 20th-century, media-weaned way.

Luckily, not even McConaughey can damage the rock-hard strength of certain scenes. In one distinctive exchange, Cinque and Baldwin hit upon the same key legal issue, but their linguistic gap stymies their connection. (The defense eventually finds a British naval officer who can speak Cinque's language, Mende.) And the filmmakers come up with a compensating coup for every overwrought flourish or questionable decision. They stud the film with visual epiphanies, like the slaves watching the masts of a ship tower over the Connecticut streets; they grace it with startling dramatic nuggets, like Arliss Howard's brilliant cameo of that stiff-backed Southern spokesman John Calhoun. And they give the Africans the pivotal perspective on the story, which pays off in humor and insight: When the black men theorize that the Christians praying for their souls are "entertainers" (but then wonder why they look so "miserable"), the joke steams away the film's own do-gooding patina. Introducing a fictional black abolitionist named Joadson into the mix may be a nod toward political correctness, but Freeman's towering presence turns it into a soul-quaking affirmation. Freeman is rending when Joadson and Baldwin search La Amistad and the free black man imagines the horrors that it held. His mournful, appalled eyes prepare you for the molten core of the movie: its wrenching revelations of the slave passage to America.

Watching men from a neighboring tribe snare Cinque in a coarse net and drag him off to a slave fortress, you think, "Of course, that's how it happened." The pressurized account of his voyage doesn't leave you the emotional space to think; you can only feel along with Cinque the dehumanizing horror of people chained, starved, flogged, and drowned. The most profound moment of the film may be when Cinque exchanges glances with a woman holding a baby, right before she leaps into the drink. Did she take his glance as approval? Did he believe he could persuade her to keep on struggling to live? Cinque himself becomes unmoored; slavery divides not only races from each other, and men and women from their natural bonds, but also individuals from their deepest selves.

The final portion of the film links up philosophically with that atrocity and gives Amistad its full measure of spiritual grandeur. Martin Van Buren, catering to the South in an election year (his campaign train is a beaut, like a toy choo-choo from childhood), makes sure the case is carried to a Supreme Court stacked with Southern sympathizers. But the august John Quincy Adams decides to join the defense. And Adams knows that he must base his case on the ethical cornerstone of the nation -- the insistence in the very Declaration of Independence on man's "inalienable rights."

Hopkins is sensational as the physically twisted, emotionally vinegary, mentally luminous Adams. He's equally effective as a listener and an orator. When Cinque tells Adams that in moments of truth, he calls into the past for his ancestors to help him -- "and they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all" -- Hopkins' craggy intellectual rapture tells you that his own ancestors, especially John Adams, his father, have grown ever closer to him. When Hopkins delivers Adams' address before the court, Hopkins uses every actor's trick to make his speech seem spontaneous, down to the way he wraps his fingers on a rail against the rhythm of his words (and of the incessant music). But what's most important is that he conveys the conviction of a statesman -- democracy is the air he breathes. The writers have taken bits and pieces of Adams' own words and ideas and skillfully modernized and refined them, but Hopkins' fervor makes them sound simultaneously unexpected and inevitable. When he addresses his forefathers -- the Founding Fathers -- and prays that a civil war, if it comes, "may be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution," he brings the body of the film to a glorious conclusion. Hopkins reminds me of what poet/critic James Agee said of an obscure actor in a forgotten historical film: "He looks like a daguerreotype, not an impersonation." The entire movie is like that. To steal a phrase from another poet/critic, Randall Jarrell, Spielberg visualizes historical events so that they occur for the first time -- and to you.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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