Among the many films that Steven Spielberg has offered us in a career that is unique for its incisiveness, caliber and variety.
Amistad is probably still the most underrated today, perhaps because it came out at the wrong time, perhaps because the theme was still uncomfortable at the time. .
Certainly a less accessible film than other masterpieces that the American director had offered us in that decade. Today, 25 years later, it must be admitted that in reality, that film is far superior to almost all of those who have tried to tell us about the tragedy of slavery, often falling into déjà vu, sentimentality or even worse, paternalism. , without being able to render in its global dimension one of the most terrifying tragedies in the history of humanity.
A process that divided a nation
As he had already done in Schindler’s List , as he would have done the following year in Saving Private Ryan or in Bridge of Spies , Spielberg decided to present himself as a sort of middle ground between a faithful historical reenactment and a narration that managed to be incisive semantic and above all thematic level.
The primary source was the historical novel “the revolt of Amistad” by Barbara Chase-Riboud , concerning one of the most famous judicial cases of the 19th century in America, the one that led about fifty African slaves belonging almost all to the Mendi ethnic group, to revolt against the crew of a Spanish slave ship and attempt a desperate escape to their homeland.
Intercepted and finally arrested by the US fleet, they became the cornerstone of a dispute that divided even more North and South of the Union, and caused a lot of headaches to the presidency of the weak Van Buren who wanted to deal with the Kingdom of Spain and the slave countries of South America continue to have fruitful relationships. Steven Spielberg decided to aim straight at the viewer’s throat so to speak, he packaged a very tough, dramatic film, yet cloaked in a very profound humanity because it was built around the need for dialogue and confrontation between human beings from completely different worlds.
But above all (and perhaps this was the reason why the Academy and the American critics in general were positive but without enthusiasm) he decisively pointed the finger at the original sin of his country in a witty, in-depth and above all culturally well-argued way.
And you know, Americans never like being lectured to them, except when it is disguised as a final praise, which Amistad only partially achieved, with the final oratory by an extraordinary Anthony Hopkins in the guise of former president and antislavery activist John Quincy Adams.
All this, however, after recalling what many years later, always talking about slaves even though in a completely different film like Killing Me Softly , Brad Pitt would explain in the guise of a ruthless killer: only money, only money and profit matter in America, far more than its supposed ideals.
An accusation leveled at the United States of America
In addition to an Anthony Hopkins who gave us one of his most curious, captivating and at the same time difficult to understand characters, Amistad drew strength from a cast that had Matthew McConaughey as the great protagonist together with Djimon Hounsou , launched by this film, a another splendid gift that Spielberg gave us 25 years ago with Amistad .
A seemingly cynical, cheap and not particularly empathetic lawyer on the one hand, a man taken from his family and who had seen all kinds of horrors on the other. Amistad ‘s little miracle was undoubtedly the fact that he was able to make people understand how intelligence, the will to dialogue, the interest in the different, could and can still today become wonderful tools, with which to eliminate any difference of kind.
Amistad still fascinates today precisely because of the meticulousness and intelligence with which Spielberg made incommunicability the true, great enemy of those men eager only to return to freedom, against a system, the American judicial system, which yesterday as today is much less neutral and much more controlled by power than it itself would like to think. Spielberg here deeply attacks the respectable hypocrisy, but more deeply also the puritanical soul of the United States, that something that permeates every juncture of his society. A conflict well represented by the contrast between a very good Morgan Freeman and his supposed friend and fellow anti-slavery fighter played by Stellan Skarsgård. All things considered, he is perhaps the most interesting character in the film, because until almost the end he appears to be a genuine and sincere abolitionist, only to later reveal himself to be intimately paternalistic and deep down still infected with a truly disgusting racism and sense of superiority towards Africans.
He is as dangerous as the Cuban slave traders, the selfish and cynical politicians, as well as the African ones who collaborated in this trade, which was actually forbidden at the time and yet accepted because it was convenient for the Capital which conditions every supposed civilization.
An exemplary film for purpose and conception
Enhanced by a naturally magnificent soundtrack by the usual John Williams , with a photography by Janusz Kaminski (Oscar nominee) that perfectly enhances the costumes by Ruth E. Carter (another nomination here too) and the scenography studied to the millimeter Rick Carter , Tony Fanning and Rosemary Brandenburg , Amistadhowever, it thrives above all on the typical expressive power of Spielberg’s direction. The incipit is essentially a masterpiece of composition and rhythm, one of the most realistic, visceral and powerful rebellion scenes ever seen, perfectly consistent with a story that finally in Cinque’s memoirs will become a horror Odyssey as today they are no longer conceived.
Someone at the time tried to belittle it by calling it a sort of uninspired carbon copy of Schindler’s List , almost as if the American director were once again seeking success by riding the pornography of the pain of history, but in reality Amistad is still today from certain points of view the best film you made about that centuries-long tragedy.
To see something comparable in terms of its ability to make us understand the impiety of the phenomenon, we will paradoxically have to wait for a film that will deal with that theme in a certain sense in a parallel and indirect way, such as Tarantino’s Django Unchained . For despite appreciable will and care in reenactment, neither Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave nor Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones has managed to make so universally clear in its appalling injustice, what the West and in general the white man did to that continent.
All this, however, rejecting not so much a Manichean vision of history, because for Spielberg there are good and bad and there will always be, but how much injustice does not arise by chance, but often rides by virtue of the supremacy of the strongest, the most powerful. 25 years later, net of a certain return rhetoric, of the desire almost to marry a very little useful uchronia as with the blockbuster The Woman King or other similar operations, Amistad remains an extraordinary example of civil cinema but above all of cinema about man, with all his faults, his strengths, his horrors and his ability to redeem himself.