For some reason, "Amistad" is one of director Steven Spielberg's most overlooked films. Despite the fact it was nominated for innumerable awards in 1998 when it was first released, after its theatrical run the film somehow seems to have slipped into relative obscurity. Undeservedly so, I should say, because it is a very good movie and I was glad to see that Paramount Home Entertainment has now prepared a Blu-Ray version of it.
Based on true events, the movie recollects what has gone down in history as the "Trial Of The Presidents". Starting out with an extremely powerful scene on board the "La Amistad", a Spanish slave ship off the shore of Africa, the film immediately sets the right tone for the events to come. During a thunderstorm at sea the chained Africans manage to free themselves from their shackles, revolt and kill almost everyone on board. Unable to navigate the ship correctly, but driven only by their ferocious wish to return to their homeland and their families, they force their two Spanish navigators to follow the sun. As it turns out this takes them all the way across the Atlantic to the shores of New England. With slavery still commonplace during that time, the Africans are immediately apprehended, and accused of murder and insurrection. Unable to communicate with the American officials they have no idea what is happening to them and of course cannot defend themselves, let away prove that they are in fact no slaves but have been illegally captured and sold into slavery by the Spaniards. A number of parties, including the eleven year old Queen of Spain, claim rights on the prisoners, pulling out all kinds of obscure tricks and legal maneuvers, ignoring the fact entirely that these people might actually be free.
Only a backstreet property lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) sniffs the opportunity to make it to fame and riches by uncovering the truth about these people. Upon request of a group of abolitionists he carefully picks one of the black men, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), to represent the group and brings in a translator to communicate with the intelligent man. Over time he learns to respect and trust Cinque. He develops a strategy that should put an end to the prisoners' inhuman treatment and give them back their freedom, but strong political powers are at work to prevent just that.
The trial would last for two full years back in 1839, and brought the United States one step closer to Civil War, with former president John Quincy Adams' involvement in the trial playing an essential role in the outcome of the proceedings.
While watching "Amistad" one can't help but think that Steven Spielberg tried to re-enact the success and import of his previous film "Schindler's List", a strong drama that despite its considerable length is one of the best films of his career. By comparison, however, "Amistad" is a little overbearing, self-important and somewhat lacks focus. Somehow the film does not take the right approach to make the historical events tangible, always keeping the personalities of the 'Amistad Slaves' at arm's length.
After the powerful start, "Amistad" descends into a long and slowly developing courtroom drama with few memorable highlights. If it weren't for Djimon Hounsou, whose performance as Cinque is outright amazing to say the least, the film would certainly degrade into average standard. He is carrying the entire film on his own merit, on-screen or off-screen, and not even accomplished actors like Morgan Freeman or Anthony Hopkins can hold a candle to this staggering performance. Most of the cast is played quite subdued and there are so many characters involved that it is hard to find out their relevance in the overall story until the end of the film - but by then you have probably forgotten about them anyway. The film exhibits quite a bit of pathos at times and sadly, not even Anthony Hopkins' eloquent closing speech in court makes a true impact.
Despite all that however, it is an intriguing story and one that is told by one of Hollywood's most accomplished filmmakers. It is a story about fanaticism, ignorance and the lack of tolerance, about bravery and the deficiencies of our self-righteous society. A story that needed to be told, just like "Schindler's List" needed to see the light of day. Too many people still sympathize with the cruel injustice done to black people now as then, and it appears that we simply need a wake-up call every once in a while.
I found the movie extremely compelling despite its flaws, and I will go back to watch it again. While not as good as it could have been, "Amistad" is still much better and more educational than most other films out there. Especially the portrayal of the "Amistad Slaves" seems more faithful than ever before. We do not see subjugated people, but a raw force emanating from their ranks that is inspiring and shows us how defiance must have kept these people alive under these most inhuman conditions. It is a spark of strength, intelligence and humanity that elevates them above the humiliation they endure.
Paramount Home Video present his Dreamworks production in a pristine high definition transfer that maintains its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image quality is marvelous, with a well defined image that is sharp and extremely detailed. Color reproduction is absolutely stunning throughout, with very strong and saturated hues and solid tones, yet absolutely faithfully reproducing naturally lit daylight scenes. Black levels are very deep and the dark interior shots are converted excellently, maintaining all details. Fleshtones are very natural throughout.
The release arrives with a DTS 5.1 HD Master audio track that is active and engrossing. Especially during the dramatic scenes of the insurrection at the movie's beginning, the surrounds are very aggressive and bass extension is solid, giving the film the necessary punch to drive the scenes home. John Williams has once again lent his hand to create the music for this film, as for almost all of Steven Spielberg's films. The score is once again a masterpiece of ethnic writing and orchestration, putting many authentic African themes and instruments to use throughout the film. As is Williams' trademark, he also uses the full range of his orchestra to create a wide soundstage and an interesting atmosphere to enhance the images on the screen.
"Amistad" does not have the same impact on viewers as "Schindler's List" had, but it is a good and important film nevertheless. Vigorously acted and portrayed, this film shows us what the enslavement of people in Africa probably looked like, more realistically than ever Make sure to give it a look sometime, now that it is available in high definition.