January 4, 1998 -- Hollywood blasted moviegoers with a lot of crap this year before bringing out the good stuff in the last month of the year, just in time for Oscar voters. Those voters tend to have short memories, so Hollywood brings out great films like "Amistad" at the end of the year.
Steven Spielberg shows the same kind of fire and passion he did in directing "Schindler's List" as the horror of slavery is laid bare in the crucible of the courtroom. Spielberg starts out with the rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad, and shows more in flashbacks, but it is the courtroom drama that has the real punch in this film.
Based on a true story, the film follows the 44 West Africans through a tortured trip across the ocean and through American courts from 1839 to 1841. The case catches the attention of abolitionists, including former slave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman). It also catches the attention of a young lawyer specializing in property cases named Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey)
Although under funded and inexperienced, Baldwin prevails in court when he finds evidence the Africans are not slaves at all, but were kidnapped illegally from West Africa. President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) has the judge replaced when he is told by aides that the case could lead to a civil war if the Africans are freed. Van Buren's strategy fails, however, when the newly-appointed judge rules in favor of the Africans. Van Buren then opts to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, where seven of the nine justices are slave-holders.
That's where ex-president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) is brought in to argue the case. Abolitionists, knowing that Adams was sympathetic to their cause, had sought him out earlier, but he refused. Now, with the stakes sky high, he can't refuse. Adams is regarded as a washed up politician, famous largely because of his father, who was president before him.
Adams believes that in court, the victory often goes to the side telling the best story. He finds out what story the Africans have to tell. The leader of the West Africans, Cinque (played with great dignity by Djimon Hounsou), gives Hopkins some ideas for his final summation, which is a real spellbinder.
One difference between this film and "Schindler's List" is that this time Spielberg is making the movie for Dreamworks, a company he co-owns. This is easily the best product this fledgling company has made thus far. The company's first film "The Peacemaker" was a competent, but uninspired actioner. "Amistad," however, is a lot more than that. It rates an A.
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