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Out of Africa 

Wednesday, Dec 10 1997
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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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