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AMISTAD (1997 - R)
"Amistad" is the retelling of the historical court case dubbed "the trial of the presidents". "Amistad" reveals the harrowing plight of one group of West Africans who made history when the mutinied their slave ship, La Amistad, on its way to America. Sold from their own people, the Africans, lead by one man, did their best to survive the deadly journey and the endless trials encountered along the rocky seas and even rockier ground of America. With attorney Baldwin and former president John Quincy Adams on their side, the Africans are presented before the Supreme Court in a trial that will forever alter the course of both Africa and the newfound United States of America.
Written by: David Franzoni.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Genre: Drama, History.
Rated: R for some scenes of strong brutal violence and some related nudity.
The film commences on a dark and stormy night at sea in 1839 where a precarious African is working tirelessly to acquire a nail which he can then insert it into the groove of his shackles and free himself from his stifling incarceration in the claustrophobic hull of a ship where he and hundreds of other slaves have been cast to endure the tumultuous ride of the dank dungeons of the Amistad; awaiting their unknown fate. As the now free slave, Cinque (Hounsou), and the rest of his fellow people rebel and strike a mutiny among the shipping, killing all but two sole survivors. Depending on the survivors to lead them safely to shore, the seasick Africans do their best to endure the remainder of the duration of the ride until they can safely rest on the woody shores of the ‘Promised Land’. As Cinque and his men do their best to get along in a new world where no one speaks their languages or seems even remotely affable or concerned with their case, the Africans hide in the camouflage of the bushes awaiting their interminable fate; capture by the U.S. authorities.
As the Africans become once again locked-up in chains; this time behind the bars of U.S. prisons, an avid abolitionist by the name of Joadson (Freeman) works to find a man ready to take the part of defensive attorney for the African. Enter Baldwin (McCounaughey) and Tappan (Skarsgard), the former of which will represent the Africans in the court room. Though a seemingly impossible case at first, Baldwin eventually acquires the necessary manuscripts to convince the judge that the slaves are from Africa and not from the Cuban plantations; as the persecuting attorney (Peter Posthelthwaite) repeatedly insists.
Just as quick as they were locked up and set free, current U.S. President Martin Van Buren (Hawthorne), and his assistant, Secretary Forsyth convince the courts that a new case is to take place with the installment of a new, personally appointed, subjective judge, and the omission of a jury. Intent on re-enslaving the Africans, Van Buren and Forsythe calculate the least volatile way to undermine the Africans' freedom. Meanwhile a frustrated Joadson consults former President and current Congressman, the infamous John Quincy Adams (Hopkins), on the precariously corrupt situation, Baldwin takes about learning the language of the African people. Walking about the local town muttering 'African gibberish', only until one man deciphers their poor replication of his native tongue, Ens. Convoy (Ejofor), is their any hope for Baldwin and his case concerning the Africans.
As Ens. Convoy acts the part of translator, Baldwin continually employs Cinque to tell of the story of how he made his way onto the Amistad and eventually to the U.S. But what one discovers is a harrowing tale of betrayal where the Africans' own people would sell each other out for the sum of a certain tempting bounty. Cinque was one of those men destined to become a slave, gagged, bound, and beaten by his own men. Eventually he and hundreds of other Africans would be forced into shackles and loaded like animals into the cargo hull of the notorious slave ship, Tacora. With much death, mayhem, sickness, disease, and other travesties ensuing, the immobile and incarcerated Africans would do their best to endure the tumultuous seas as one by one their naked people would die off from starvation, malnutrition, and disease. But before Cinque tells of how he got to the Amistad, he tells of how his tribe once awarded him with jewels and royal cloaks for saving his tribe from certain death of a deadly tiger. But no sooner is Cinque awarded for his bravery and prowess than he is betrayed for an award greater than his.
Flash back to the tragic depiction of the unbelievably inhumane trials of the Africans as they lay naked, cold, starved, and beaten (to near death) awaiting their certain homicide via either ruthless lashings or drowning (which was done by stringing up the slaves to a chain that contained a heavy anchor of stones that would rip them off the deck and carry them into the depths of the sea as the weight descended into the dark oceanic abyss). Eventually the Africans would make their way to Havana, Cuba, where they awaited to once again be re-sold and shipped off to the Americans via the cargo ship, Amistad. As the film pans to a court room filled with hundreds of white and black Americans alike, listening to the harrowing tales of Cinque, as translated by Ens. Convoy, and the cynical speculation of their authenticity by prosecuting attorney (Peter Postelthwaite), a heartbroken Cinque stands and pleas "Gives Us Free" to the astonishment of all.
While the 'handpicked' judge deliberates over the fate of the Africans, all await his final decision. But when the decision sways in a means not to the favor of the prosecuting attorney, the Spanish Generals, or the entirety of the upset South who are ready to wage Civil War, everyone must anxiously await yet another trial as the President calls for the judge to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. While the Africans are celebrating their expected return to their home country, Baldwin crashes the party with some unfortunate news that the case has yet to be confirmed and awaits deliberation at the Supreme Court.
Upon the desperate plea of Baldwin and Joadson, John Quincy Adams eventually agrees to undertake the representation of the Africans as the head defensive attorney for the case that is to appear before the Supreme Court justice; no less than Southern slave owners, the lot of them anyways. With undeniable evidence refuting the claims of the prosecution, the Supreme Court Justices are left to deliberate on the astoundingly powerful and persuasive rhetoric of John Quincy Adams and his plea to restore the natural rights of man to the Amistad Africans: freedom. All the while, U.S. Civil War lingers on the horizon.
"Amistad" is a true story that tells of the harrowing trials and tribulations of the African slaves who insurrected their freedom upon the slave ship 'La Amistad'. With an all-star cast including Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, and newcomer Djimon Honsou, the film brings to light the plights of white and black men alike in what would become known as the "trial of the presidents". Inspired by "Schindler's List", Spielberg once again brings to the silver screen a dramatic tale of epic proportions that tells of the tragic injustice wrought on a race; this time the race is that of the cultural tribes of the West Indies. Though the American Revolution has ended, Civil War is still on the brink of the tenuous new country as the lines between North and South are constantly thickening with the chaos of abolitionist movements and other socio-political controversies.
Matthew McConaughey steps out of his suave looks and flashy panache to embrace the role of a down-and-out albeit shrewdly astute attorney who is prepared to win the Amistad case no matter the cost. Truthfully McCaunaughey becomes larger than life with his performance of your everyday normal, even lowly man whose shrewish-ness is slowly weathered by the impressionable Cinque. Of course Djimon Honsou, without whom, Spielberg argues, the film would not have been nearly as successful, if at all possible, is by far the most compelling character in the film. Playing the role of the rebellious African, Cinque, Djimon embraces the gritty nature of a man absolutely intent on not resting with his forced life of slavery. Determined to re-ascertain his freedom, Cinque will lead and inspire his Africans just as much as he will the white man who will have to retell his harrowing tale, against all odds. Enter Anthony Hopkins who masterfully conquers the role of the cantankerous old John Quincy Adams who, down and out and beyond his prime, will neglectfully undergo a transformation and once again rise to the occasion to reassume his dashing authority; as he once was famous for during his years as president. In short, no one could have done it better than Hopkins.
Of course having film mogul and master Steven Spielberg backing the film with his award winning directorial skills was integral in making the film as successful as it was. Startling art direction and cinematography with a haunting soundtrack and score help make this film a solid replication of a historical event that would forever alter the history of two nations. Nominated for 4 Oscars including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminiski), Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter), and Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (John Williams), along with another 22 nominations and 6 wins, "Amistad" is a powerful retelling of history that, through the lens of Spielberg, could not be better.
Morgan Freeman plays Joadson, an avid abolitionist who employs Baldwin in hopes of setting the 'Amistad' Africans free.
Anthony Hopkins plays John Quincy Adams, current Congressman and former President of the United States.
Djimon Hounsou plays Cinque, one of the emerging leaders of the pack of slaves shipped over on the Amistad.
Matthew McConaughey plays Baldwin, the legal authority representing Cinque and his people in the court case involving authority of ownership for the 'Amistad' slaves.
Peter Posthelthwaite plays the cynical and nefarious prosecuting attorney, Holabird.
Nigel Hawthorne plays Martin Van Buren, current U.S. President looking to obtain a re-election into office.