If Steven Spielberg's Amistad is true, then history is a whore that will sleep with anybody, provided that you never tell anyone the truth. Amistad is a film that swings wildly from unflinching historical accuracy to disastrous melodramatic hyperbole. The film is so uneven it's as if all those involved didn't trust the fact that the events of the actual Amistad story were compelling enough as dramatic material.
In 1839, after a group of native Africans are illegally kidnapped, sold as slaves and smuggled to Cuba, a violent insurrection, led by an African named Cinque, ensues on the schooner La Amistad. The Africans commandeer the ship, but are caught by an American naval vessel and brought in on charges of piracy and murder.
Within the vague language of various international treaties against the slave trade, the Africans are held in captivity under the threat of being sent back to Cuba where certain death awaits them. The abolitionist movement uses this case to promote its own anti-slavery cause in America.
After the zealous legal argument of the abolitionist lawyer Baldwin proves that the Africans have always been free, both before the point of their kidnapping and before the point when they were arrested by the Americans, a lower court victory is won. But the case is then taken to the Supreme Court where the abolitionists retain former President John Quincy Adams as legal counsel. Ex-President Adams attacks the shady practices of the Van Buren administration, the illegal slave trading of Spain and Cuba, and solicits the freedom of the Africans, all without winning any victory for the anti-slavery campaign at the time.
Though the foregoing is history, it is not the story told in the film Amistad. The ironic flaw within this film is that the history which it falsifies is hinged upon an African-American actor (Morgan Freeman) cast as an abolitionist working on the case. Producer Debbie Allen has admitted that this character is a "historical composite" who did not exist.
In creating this false African-American character to supplement an already racially polarized historical drama, director Steven Spielberg, co-producer Debbie Allen and screenwriter David Franzoni have succeeded in reducing Morgan Freeman to an anachronistic Stepin Fetchit. This Fetchit grins in places he could never have been, bugs his eyes curiously at racist ideology and pratfalls against the chains hanging in an empty slave ship that he could never have visited to search for evidence to free Africans he could not have spoken with. The sheer mediocrity of this "historical composite," who has little to say or do, nearly ruins all of the film's brilliant moments of authenticity and compelling drama.
Above all, Amistad lacks a resilient moral and philosophical questioning of the actual historical event: Are not all men free by their natural rights?
Despite magnetic performances by Djimon Hounsou as Cinque and Matthew McConaughey as Baldwin, Amistad is a film of fits and starts, brilliance and mediocrity, clarity and befuddlement. If history is a whore, why should we have to lie about sleeping with it? Why can't we just tell the truth?
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