Friday, September 11, 2015

Amistad

Amistad (1997)
     If you love the film Amazing Grace, then you must see this remarkable Steven Spielberg film that is based on the true events of the Amistad mutiny of 1839 and the subsequent court case that followed. After I did my movie review for Amazing Grace, I wanted to review this movie as almost a continuation of what William Wilberforce's 15 year fight in Parliament did, not only for Great Britain, but for the world and how his impact for the final creation of the Slave Abolition Act of 1833 was paramount in the United States v. Amistad case less than ten years later. 

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Top: The real United States v. Amistad case in 1839/1841.
Bottom: Scene from the film. (Cinque's cry for freedom)
     The film begins with the bloody mutiny of the Spanish slave ship, the Amistad where the slaves had been illegally hunted in the Sierra Leone and then re-sold in Cuba. Led by the powerful Cinque who takes control of the Amistad with hopes of guiding his people back home to Africa. Instead they find themselves sailing into a New York harbor where they are suddenly set upon by the government and thrown into jail when the news of the mutiny comes to light.

      Now, the freedom and the lives of the men and women of the Amistad are in jeopardy as America finds itself caught in a political web of international trade and legalities. Cinque tries to keep his people together, but finds it hopeless in this strange world where no one understands them. Then an eccentric lawyer, Roger Sherman Baldwin, comes across the information that could be the slaves way out of America. By this time the Atlantic slave trade is illegal, but there is no concrete information that the slaves are from Africa (even though they speak Mende). If Robert can prove that the slaves were illegally captured in their own country and then sold off in Cuba, Cinque and his people may actually have a fighting chance of returning home.

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     Djimon Hounsou as Joseph Cinque: There really is no lead character, but seeing as the film starts with Cinque, ends with Cinque, and the lives of the other characters are inevitably changed by Cinque, I can say the Cinque is truly the centerpoint of the story. Once a powerful and respected warrior and leader in the Sierra Leone, Cinque's happy life with his beautiful wife and son comes to an end, when he is captured by Portuguese slavers and thrown into a slave ship with over 100 other Africans. After a hellish journey to Cuba, Cinque and many others are re-sold to Spanish merchants and are transported onto the Amistad. 

      If the ride to Cuba was awful, nothing prepared Cinque for the horrors that the captain and the crew of the Amistad put him and his people through. Starvation, beatings, and the merciless treatment of the sick and dying pushes Cinque to the point of revolt and he leads a remarkably successful mutiny on the Amistad. Cinque leaves two Spanish navigators alive so they can direct him home, but instead they take him to New York, where he and his people are once again captured.

     Now alone in a strange new land where he has no communication with anyone outside of the small slave community they build, Cinque finds himself desperate, confused, frightened and losing hope of ever returning back to Africa. Enter Roger Baldwin, who assures Cinque that there is a way to get him and his people back home. Despite the language and racial barriers, Cinque has no choice, but to trust Sherman and his friends no matter that circumstances and finds himself intrigued by this strange new world, the people within it and man of light that they worship (Jesus Christ).

     Matthew McConaughey as Roger Sherman Baldwin: A generous, but somewhat zany lawyer who takes an incredible risk with his life when he chooses to defend the rights of the African slaves. Roger sees the immediate legal loophole in the political system which could offer Cinque and his people the freedom that was taken from them. After being hired by a wealthy abolitionist, Baldwin begins to present his case to the courts by identifying the slaves as stolen cargo. However awful that might sound, it's the loophole that gets the courts to listen to him.

      As the case drags on, Roger and Cinque form an unlikely bond of friendship with each other and Cinque begins to see Roger as their savior that will free them from their bondage. That trust adds a heavy weight on Roger's shoulders and he knows that he cannot fail as a lawyer, a friend and an American who believes in true justice when most of the world seems to have forgotten it.

     Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams: The former president of the United States, now a retiring statesman who would rather spent time in his green house than the house of Congress. Living in the shadows of his famous parents, John believes his life his just been a puppet for the dynasty of his father's legacy. When the slaves of the Amistad are brought into court, Adams becomes a counselor for Roger Baldwin, but tries to stay out of the issue as much as possible. When the court case seems to be going south and Roger is desperate, Adams takes the stand to defend the slaves and gives a powerful speech that finally gets him out of the shadow of his father and into a light the political world never thought they would see.

      Morgan Freeman as Theodore Joadson: A successful and well educated man who has devoted his life to the abolitionist cause. Telling the story of the slave trade through the eyes of a free black man gives a different perspective to the story. Theodore was probably born and raised in America and  truly sees these African's as his people, but the contrasting differences between him as an American and the Africa slaves are hard to get around. When he and Roger explore the Amistad he finds himself horrified by the conditions of the quarters and the treatment of illegal slaves. A truly good and brave man who was given the chance of freedom and will fight to make sure others have that chance too.

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     This film is absolutely wonderful to watch as a companion to Amazing Grace and seeing how the history of the eradication of slavery begins to unfold first from England and then to America. Amistad didn't gloss over the violent treatment of the slaves which, while it was hard to watch, it gave to the movie the realities of the slave trade. The conflicting ideas of the abolitionists and those in favor in of slavery are highly contrasted in the film as well as keeping with deep Christian morals and themes (primarily from a young Catholic judge who becomes a game-changer in the case). Beautifully filmed and well acted on all fronts and while Amistad may have historical inaccuracies, the story gives light to an incredible court case the defined America and the true meaning of freedom.


 One of the best scenes is when Cinque and his best friend are paging though a Bible and are able to translate the life of Christ from the pictures and how their own lives of suffering and injustice seem to be similar to his. 


3 comments:

  1. This sounds like an amazing movie! I'll have to keep watch for it. Thanks for the review!

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  2. OH MY GOODNESS!! This movie is so amazing. I watched it for history several years ago-- I think I was definitely too young for it then, but if I watched it again I'd get a lot more out of it. I remember Anthony Hopkins' speech at the end, though, and how I thought it was probably the most extraordinary speech ever given in any movie, ever. :-) Great review!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed reading it : )

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