Another Steven Spielberg cinematic triumph, Amistad garnered four Academy Award nominations, Best Music Original Dramatic Score (John Williams) and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Anthony Hopkins) among them. Based on the true story of the 1839 slave revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad, the film provides a dramatic visual glimpse into the horrors of 19th-century slavery. Just as Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List created an onscreen record to account for the Nazi atrocities of the holocaust, Amistad stands as a testament to the evils of the Atlantic slave trade and its infamous relationship with the United States of America. As such, be prepared to watch a film with graphic portrayals of human bondage and mistreatment.
Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), the central character of the film, is lured from the safety of his African village, trapped like a wild animal, and placed in bondage aboard a large slave trading vessel bound for the Caribbean. Chained to the floor and crammed side-by-side in the hull of the galleon, hundreds and hundreds of kidnapped Africans endure brutal and barbaric treatment. They are rarely fed (and very little food is given), and each must use the bathroom where he sits, vomit where he sits, and some even die while chained to others. The conditions are best described as a literal hell on earth.
These opening scenes, just like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, are the most vivid and powerful of the entire movie, conjuring an abundance of images certain to brand themselves in your mind forever. In one such scene, around fifteen to twenty African captives are shackled together and bound by a series of chains when one is thrown overboard. This barbarous act results in a chain reaction that drags each of the connected persons to the bottom of the sea.
But the men and women of Amistad don’t submit easily. One of them decides to fight back. Late one night, the opportunity for revolt presents itself and Cinque sparks an uprising against the ship’s crew. He and his fellow countrymen take the ship by force and kill their captors. Now free from bondage, the men attempt to sail home to their native land, but in the darkness of night, they inadvertently sail to America instead.
The grounded ship gains national political interest when the survivors of the Amistad are treated as slaves. Even President Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) takes an interest in the matter. When a young and idealistic lawyer named Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) and a freedman named Joadson (Morgan Freeman) take up the task of representing Cinque’s interests in an American courtroom, the case takes on a life of its own. Cinque reveals the tale of his capture, details of the island sorting facility where future American slaves are processed, and the general torture and mistreatment of human beings in the pursuit of monetary profit. When the case goes before the Supreme Court, former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) enters the picture in an attempt to win a victory for freedom and individual rights.
One of the more dramatic and important films of the decade, Amistad opens your eyes to past injustice and provides a general sense of gratitude for the times in which we live. It will make you angry at the horrible practices of preceding generations. But more importantly, Amistad serves as a reminder to both current and future generations that freedom is not to be taken for granted. It is the birthright of all men, and it is our obligation to fight for it whenever we can. This important message, and its historical lessons, make Amistad one movie no human being can afford to miss.