Urban Cinefile  
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday July 28, 2020 


In the summer of 1839 on a stormy night off the coast of Cuba, 53 Africans held captive in the cramped cargo holds of the Spanish slave ship LA Amistad break free. Led by Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), they take control of the ship, relying on the two surviving members of the crew to guide them back to Africa. But they are tricked. After two months on the ragged course up the Eastern seabord, the Amistad is captured by an American naval ship off the coast of Long Island and the Africans are charged with murder. In the beginning, the Africans are championed by abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and businessman Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård), plus a young real estate lawyer, Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey). However, as the case becomes a symbol of a nation divided, two great Americans lock horns in the debate: pro-slavery President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), seeking re-election, is willing to sacrifice the Africans to appease the South, along with the 11 year old Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin). Van Buren is challenged by former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), who comes out of retirement to fight the Africans’ cause in the US Supreme Court. It is a case that challenges the very foundation of the legal system, but for the Africans on trial, this is a fight for the basic right of all people – freedom.

"Worthy but a little dull, Amistad is unlikely to be a favourite even among Steven Spielberg devotees. The problems that plague most of his "serious" works are at their most obvious in this true life tale of slavery and justice. His penchant for dramatic over kill and too-heavy reliance on music to steer audience emotion dilutes the impact of a fascinating story.

The setting is 1839 and the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, en route from Havana to another port in Cuba, has been overrun by its human cargo. The slave owners have been spared on the proviso they guide the craft to Africa; instead they lead Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) and fellow prisoners into US waters. Their subsequent trial is not about slavery itself but whether the mutineers were born slaves or free men - the distinction will determine whether they live or die. The crucial legal fact that is never properly explained is that by 1839 slavery had been abolished internationally but those who were already slaves - and their children - remained the property of their masters. As the case comes to trial real estate lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConnaughey) former slave Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and abolitionist Tappan (Skellan Skarsgard) plea for the defence of the slaves before former U.S President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) enters the arena to argue for their acquittal.

The story is a fascinating one and it sustains interest throughout but the telling is heavy handed. The use of intrusive, swelling music and lengthy, repetitive speeches indicate that Spielberg doesn't trust the audience to "get it" unless the point is rammed home. It's a pity because this little-known incident has everything going for it as an heroic tale but it's too laboured at 2 & 1/2 hours and even the services of a classy cast can't lift it to the level it deserves.

The basic DVD package includes a behind the scenes featurette and info booklet that are hardly going to lure the unconverted to fork out the purchase price."
Richard Kuipers

Published June 7, 2001

Email this article

You can buy it HERE - next day delivery within Australia


Read our FEATURE


CAST: Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
RUNNING TIME: 148 minutes

DVD RELEASE: January 24, 2001

Behind the Scenes Featurette, Theatrical Trailer, 4 Page Booklet with Production Notes, Subtitles: English, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish

© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020