I bet you never thought I’d find a way to tie the Casey Anthony trial to a Spielberg film. But having re-watched Amistad a few days after the verdict in the trial came in, while the tumult over the whole thing was still going on, it was pretty easy for the two to run together a bit in my mind. In all the brow-furrowing that was done over the verdict, one of the common refrains was that, despite the overwhelming appearance of guilt on Anthony’s part, the defense made a better case than the prosecution, countering the prosecutions efforts to tell the jury what Anthony was with who she was and why. Or, as some put it, the defense told the better story. Which just so happens to be a key point in Amistad. But that’s where any similarities pretty much end. While many would perhaps rightfully argue Anthony’s “better story” was based on deception and misdirection, the “better story” of Amistad hinges on the powerful simplicity of its truth.
At first, the whole case is treated like a simple dispute over stolen goods, governed by property laws and treaties, and even those defending the slaves see it in that light. Everyone seems bored with the proceedings, as if they’re discussing bags of grain that have fallen off a wagon rather than people. It’s only when John Quincy Adams tells the defense that they need to know the story of these men in order to defend them, and when the defense breaks the language barrier and finally engages the slaves as human beings, that a glimmer of hope appears. When Cinque is finally allowed to tell his story of the horrors of the Middle Passage, even the attempted dismissal of the story as fiction by the prosecution isn’t enough to dampen the power of his tale. And when the case is ultimately taken all the way to the Supreme Court, it is a story Cinque tells Adams about Cinque’s ancestors that forms the core of Adams’ eventually successful argument. At every step of the way, the perception of the slaves changes from mere property or simple savages to living, breathing, feeling men — from “what” to “who” — by just listening to them. By them telling the better story. Which, in this case, also happens to be true.
I remember having been impressed by this film when I first saw it, but it’s been so long since I’d watched it that my re-watch was sort of a revelation. Spielberg’s known how to craft a great opening sequence going all the way back to Jaws, and Amistad‘s is right up there, all shadowy movement punctuated by flashes of lightning that highlight the desperate frenzy of the slaves’ revolt on the ship. He’s also pretty smart to let this sequence and the later one depicting the Middle Passage pass pretty much wordlessly; we’re being told a story, but it’s not necessary to hear the words telling it when the images are as harrowing as they are. In a way, the Middle Passage sequence is a dark echo of the scene where Celie reads her sister’s letters from Africa in The Color Purple; both are told in a similar visual style, with the story sometimes cutting back to the one telling or reading it. But whereas the letters depict a willing return to and discovery of Africa, Cinque’s story is one of being unwillingly ripped away from it, as harrowing as The Color Purple‘s sequence is hopeful. Spielberg does lean a little heavily on the score here, but seeing Cinque’s tale unfold, it’s impossible not to feel the enormity of the crime that was the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
And man, Djimon Honsou in this movie. He’s simply brilliant. He speaks maybe five words of English in the entire film, yet he carries it with such a commanding presence, you don’t really need to understand him to get his character. There’s a moment where the trial is grinding on, lost in legal technicality and wearisome argument, and we see Cinque’s growing fear, confusion and frustration, until he finally murmurs a few words he’s finally come to understand: “Give us free.” Hounsou so elegantly uses those three words, varying them, building them, until they go from a simple muttered plea to a bold shouted declaration that his people are not only desirous of but deserving of what these lawyers are so blithely discussing, and what those watching take for granted. It’s the crux of the entire film, and Hounsou just brings it here.
Some have said Amistad is a sort of response to the largely negative depiction of African-American men in The Color Purple, contrasting the monstrous Mister and the weak Harpo with the tragic nobility of Cinque and his fellow captives. It wouldn’t be the first time Spielberg felt the need to apologize for one of his films — the darkness of Temple of Doom led him to push for what eventually became the PG-13 rating, for example. But Amistad feels like anything but an apology, or a response to a specific film. If it’s not the career-definer that Schindler’s List was, it’s trying to walk the same path, and I think it, along with A.I., is one of the Spielberg films due for a bit of re-examination and re-discovery.