Charles Taylor reviews 'Amistad,' directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Djimon Hounsou, Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey.

By Charles Taylor

Published December 12, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

AMERICANS NEVER SEEM phonier than when we're being reverent about our past. All it takes is the mere mention of magic phrases like "Founding Fathers" or "Our Great Heritage" to turn us into "cultured" people who profess to enjoy what they think is "enriching" rather than what they actually like. I'm not saying that no one can honestly enjoy American history (simply as a story, how can you not?), just that our appreciation is so often showy and false, furrow-browed and solemn, when our natural comportment is casual, slangy, disrespectful.

That, I think, is part of the reason American history (particularly pre-Civil War), so fiery on the page, is usually so dull and static on-screen. Actors and directors engaged in filming historical subjects often work less for the moment than for the ages. Outfitted in wigs and breeches, the cast strikes poses and declaims words whose immortality they seem assured of before they open their mouths. Gore Vidal had it all wrong when he wrote in a recent New Yorker, "Our writers and directors tend to know as little about the country's history as the audience, so when they set a story in the past the characters are just like us except they're in costume." It's almost always the opposite. You look at this bunch of oddly dressed orators and think, "We came from them?" There are exceptions, like "The Birth of a Nation," or more recently, "Glory." More typical is the shot in Steven Spielberg's new "Amistad" of the Supreme Court, where every mane of white hair seems to be bathed in a nimbus of light and the marble busts of the forefathers ringing the chamber all seem to have recently been polished.

It might be an illustration from one of those gift volumes of American history we got as children and left unread. Seeing "Amistad" is a little like looking at pictures without a text to unify them. The movie is Spielberg's attempt to do for slavery what he did for the Holocaust in "Schindler's List" (I don't mean that cynically), and it makes every mistake that his earlier movie avoided. Melodramatic where "Schindler's List" was tragic, programmatically uplifting and manipulative where the first film was restrained, "Amistad" is prestige filmmaking bereft of inspiration -- sometimes even of the nuts and bolts of craft.

The story of the Amistad mutiny, which took place in 1839, is a complicated one. The mutineers were West Africans being taken to Havana to be sold by the two Spaniards who had bought them. The head mutineer, Cinque, was from Sierra Leone, a British colony where slavery was outlawed. After taking over the ship, Cinque ordered the Spaniards to sail in what he believed was the direction of Africa. Instead, the Spaniards navigated the Amistad toward the United States. Cinque and his companions came ashore in the Northeast, where they were captured and taken to Hartford, Conn., to stand trial. The trial was to determine whether the mutineers were slaves who should be handed over to Spain (as the 11-year-old Queen Isabella II, as spoken for by her advisors, contended) or whether, since they were taken from a place where the slave trade was illegal, they were free men, as their lawyer, Roger Baldwin (hired by abolitionists to represent the mutineers), contended. A further complication came from Martin Van Buren, the eighth American president, then running for reelection, who needed the support of Southern states. Van Buren handpicked a judge he felt would be favorable to the government, a judge who then confounded him by ruling in favor of the mutineers. The case then went to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams made the case for the Amistad mutineers as free men and prevailed.

That's a good story, but dramatically, it's an odd one. It starts off as an adventure that begins at the climax and then turns into a courtroom drama where Cinque and his fellow defendants have been relegated to the sidelines. The script Spielberg is working from, by David Franzoni, has itself been the subject of legal wrangling in the last few weeks: The author of a novel on the mutiny claims that the script plagiarizes her work. Could her novel have been as slapdash and sketchy as all this? The route Cinque and the others took before the mutiny is a torturous one, and crucial to determining their legal standing. Here it's laid out so badly that I kept feeling as if important information were missing. The movie is sloppy about clarifying that the mutineers were not on trial for murder (slaves were "beasts of burden" and therefore not subject to the laws governing men), and equally sloppy about sorting out all the parties pressing for a piece of them. The arraignment scene, where one party after another shows up to be heard by the court, begins to feel like the overcrowded stateroom scene in "A Night at the Opera."

But you could forgive all that if the movie had some emotional urgency. Part of the reason it doesn't is that Spielberg hasn't gotten inside the character of Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) or any of the other mutineers. At times it appears as if Spielberg is trying to suggest how alien the Africans would look to the society in which they found their freedom being decided. But there's something a little queasy-making about the shots of Cinque killing his captors -- they look like fearful white fantasies of black rage. Spielberg has to show that Cinque seems alien to the men pressing for his freedom; he's too smart a director to opt for a simple-minded parable of brother. But, as a result, Hounsou, an obviously talented actor, is stuck with something close to a noble-savage role; he's saddled with scenes like the one where, after picking up some rudimentary English, he interrupts the trial to stand and chant "Give us free!" while the gospel choir in John Williams' awful score swells solemnly behind him.

When Cinque takes the witness stand to relate the story of his journey, we're made to watch the misery of people who Spielberg hasn't brought entirely to life. You could argue that the television adaptation of "Roots" was just as crude, but there, at least, each character was individualized. An extended slave-ship flashback becomes this movie's melodramatic blockbuster scene, with flashing lightning and babies in chains, weighed-down slaves being tossed overboard to conserve food supplies and others choosing to throw themselves over. It's the epitome of filmmaking that requires no talent to get a reaction. It has none of the flat matter-of-factness that made the violence in "Schindler's List" so horrifying. That wasn't just discretion on Spielberg's part; it was an acknowledgment that no fictional re-creation could ever capture the Holocaust. The literalness of "Amistad" adds to its unreality.

Seeing the mutineers crowded into the jury box, you half expect someone to introduce them to the court ` la Monty Python, by saying, "You, of course, know the wretched masses." In "Amistad," the wretched massas don't fare much better. Familiar faces in costume turn up all through the movie, and the effect is a little like sitting through the school pageant and trying to spot the neighbors' kids. "Oh, there's Arliss Howard! Look, it's that David Paymer boy." This should at least be a comfort to Matthew McConaughey, who plays Roger Baldwin: For once he gets to be completely inauthentic in a group, instead of all by himself.

Few escape that fate in "Amistad." Playing a freed slave who's become an abolitionist (a composite of several real-life figures), Morgan Freeman has a few good moments (for example, his terror while gathering evidence from the hold of the Amistad) in an utterly cryptic role. I most enjoyed Austin Pendleton, dissembling as a Yale linguist hired to translate what Cinque has to say and getting everything wrong, and Anna Paquin as Queen Isabella II. She's on-screen for perhaps 90 seconds, but she gets the joke of her role -- a pipsqueak kid playacting at royalty -- and makes the most of it. Reciting a speech in phonetic English or bouncing up and down on her huge bed squealing, "Que bonita! Que bonita!" she made me laugh every time I saw her.

"Amistad" probably wouldn't work at all if not for Anthony Hopkins' performance as John Quincy Adams. Physically, Hopkins is a good match for Adams: stooped and stocky and eagle-eyed. In many ways, the movie's conception of Adams is a tired one -- a wise, irascible old codger -- but Hopkins works like hell to keep the character from going soft. He understands that this man would much rather have our respect than our love. He maintains an ever-present taste of Adams' famous temper. As he argues the case before the Supreme Court, Hopkins makes you feel just how close Adams' reverence for the American experiment was to his contempt for the damn fools so ready to screw it up. And Hopkins shows real generosity to Hounsou. Their scenes together are the only ones where Hounsou gets to relax and relate to another actor as a person. Hopkins makes possible the young actor's best moment: When he discovers African violets in Adams' nursery, Cinque lifts their bell jar to inhale the familiar fragrance.

What makes "Amistad" so dispiriting isn't just the sight of a born filmmaker gone stiff and respectful, but the uninspired aping of the film -- "Schindler's List" -- that finally made people take Spielberg as seriously as he should have been taken all along. The real contribution of "Amistad" might turn out to be to the national debate over reparations. After two-and-a-half hours, I felt like I'd paid.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------