It is hard to pin down why historical movies are so hard to shoot. Whether it is the conflict of a desire to both stay true to the source material and at the futile attempts to whitewash the history, or simply the inability to depict every single historical event without adding here and there generic characters, historical movies definitely offer a plethora of challenges for both the director and the cast. Exaggerating historical facts to the nth degree, Amistad yet offers a unique experience and sufficient food for thoughts.
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The plot of the movie is rather complicated, mostly because it is based on real historical events. At the very start of the movie, the audience is immediately taken onto the Amistad, the ship on which Africans are taken to Spain to become slaves. Thus, the movie immediately informs the audience about the settings, which are the XIX-century USA.
Further on, Senjbe Pieh, aka Cinque, one of the slaves and the movie’s main protagonist, is introduced to the audience. He manages to release himself and the rest of the Africans; thereafter, they kill almost entire crew. Arrested in Connecticut, the Africans are to undergo the trial.
After a range of unfair actions towards the African accused, such as switching the judges from kind and sympathetic Juttson to cold-blooded and cruel Coglin, the Africans nearly lose all hope. Eventually, the barrister, John Quincy Adams, delivers his final speech: “The Declaration of Independence? What of its conceits? “All men created equal,” “inalienable rights,” “life, liberty,” and so on and so forth? What on Earth are we to do with this? I have a modest suggestion” (Amistad), and tears the Declaration in halves.
The Africans are free. However, the fact that Cinque learns that his family has been sold into slavery as he returns home adds a bitter note to the movie, as if saying, “There is still a lot to be done.”
Rethinking the movie’s significance, it is most reasonable to start with the lead character. Although the audience doubtlessly sympathizes with Cinque, he is quite compelling. It is worth appreciation that the movie does not portray him as a martyr, turning him into a paper-thin element of black-and-white reality; on the contrary, there is a lot of controversy about him.
Not only does he start a revolt on the ship, but also kills one of the crew members. Cinque is a criminal, which makes the emphasis on equal rights even stronger – he needs to be prosecuted as a human should be, not just sent to a slaughterhouse like a beast: “Give us, us free” (Amistad).
As for the supporting cast, the introduced characters work quite well into the overall tone of the movie. Which is even more important, they not only serve as the growing foil for Cinque, but also help to tell the story and make it more graphic. For instance, Van Buren is portrayed in a very specific manner.
He is not a negative character, but something in-between, a man who wants neither to have the reputation of a monster nor to break the state balance, admitting basic human rights to the African people: “it’s the independence of our courts that keeps us free” (Amistad). Even John Quincy Adams, the historical figure obviously used as a plot device, adds a specific epic flair to the movie.
As a matter of fact, his character arch at times is even more interesting than Cinque’s; for example, it is quite peculiar to watch him switching from passionate speeches (“You and this young so-called lawyer have proven you know what they are. They’re Africans” (Amistad)) to providing solid pieces of evidence in the course of the trial (“How is it that a simple, plain property issue has should now find itself so ennobled as to be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States of America” (Amistad)), from sarcastic (“in the courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins” (Amistad)) to sincere (“Give us the courage to do what is right” (Amistad)).
Of course, there are serious political and historical flaws in the movie. Senjbe Pieh had already been kidnapped and enslaved several times before appearing on Amistad; likewise, Adams was portrayed in a way too dignified manner; Theodore Joadson is a figment of the screenwriter’s imagination; this list can go on even longer than the movie does.
However, the big deciding point is whether the movie conveys its message successfully, and it does – the audience can feel the agony of the lead character, the movie makes it clear that equality is what the entire world should strive for and that every single human being should have the same rights as the others. Hence, one can turn a blind eye to some of the historical flaws.
Therefore, Amistad can be viewed as a Making Movie 101 – every single element of the film is tightly intertwined with the other ones, the characters are memorable, and even the elements used as a compromise between the movie originality and the existing standard for historical movies of such scale, work for the advantage of the film. Though it has been properly sanitized, it still deserves watching, not as a way to render the historical events, but as a way to make sure that human rights still remain a topical issue even in the XXI century.
Amistad. Ex. Prod. Laurie McDonald and Walter Parkers. Universal City, CA: DreamWorks. 1997. DVD.