At different points of his filmmaking career director Steven Spielberg (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Lincoln) has taken up the cause of the underdog, the downtrodden, the misunderstood being. Whether it is Jews during the Holocaust, aliens from outer space or blacks ripped from Africa during the slave trade, Steven Spielberg has chosen to examine the worst of human behaviour though showing that even during these horrible times there are some fighting the good fight.
Amistad is a film in which a couple of passionate defenders of human rights and willing to fight for the simple right of freedom for all in the American courts. When he chooses to make these types of films he does typically use well-known actors, but he does not trivialize the subject or just make a Hollywood film. They end up being “entertaining” because of the riveting nature of the stories and the commitment of the actors.
Though Amistad did garner four Academy Award (Best Supporting Actor for Anthony Hopkins, Best Music, Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography) nominations in 1997 though I argue (some of the legal scenes have obviously rubbed off on me) that it was woefully underappreciated. The story is riveting and not your typical slavery story. It features an immense ensemble cast that brings a commitment to their characters and brilliant interpretation of the script. Finally, the director does what he does best in that he gets out of the way and allows his actors to act and the story to shine through.
A group of enslaved Africans are aboard a slave ship named La Amistad being transported by a Spanish crew. In the bowels of the ship one male slave named Cinque (Djimon Hounsou – Gladiator, Blood Diamond) painstakingly and bloodily frees himself from his chains and then all the others. The Africans kill all the ship’s crew except for two men forcing them at to sail them back to Africa. The two Spaniards sail them in the wrong direction and they are recaptured off of Long Island, New York.
Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin – from television’s True Blood) insists that the Africans are her property and insists they be returned to Spain. President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne – The Madness of King George, Demolition Man), in the midst of a re-election campaign, does not want to get involved in it. The Africans have been charged with murder and have been imprisoned.
Two abolitionists, businessman Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard – Good Will Hunting, Thor) and former slave Theodore Jodstone (Morgan Freeman – The Shawshank Redemption, Driving Miss Daisy), take up the cause of the Africans. They engage a property lawyer named Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street) to try the case in the defense of the Africans.
A long and intense legal battle ensues that absorbs everyone involved including former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins – The Silence of the Lambs, Hitchcock). The test ahead of everyone, especially the Africans, will be a tough one as the decision could change much about the laws in America.
Small or big part this cast, which also included David Paymer (Drag Me to Hell, Payback), Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father, Inception), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Children of Men), and Jeremy Northam (The Net, Mimic), and the sensitively written script turns what could have been a courtroom drama into a tale of human rights. It does not engage in the over dramatic (other than on occasion) or over sentimentality rather it allows the facts to speak for themselves. Rather it is trying to get at the heart of the issue. Justice for all mankind no matter where they were born or the colour of their skin. A lofty target to shoot for, but Mr. Spielberg gets it more right than wrong.
-The Making of Amistad