Amistad: One of the Few Movies That Actually Makes You Feel Something

Amistad: One of the Few Movies That Actually Makes You Feel Something

Sam Bisno, Editor

No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” Ingmar Bergman wrote this in his 1987 autobiography, The Magic Lantern. He is hailed as one of the greatest film minds of all time, and yet it is rare that any movie can boast to achieve such a feat as what he describes. Nowadays, at least, a film is considered subversive and revolutionary if it even evokes a twinge of emotion or causes the slightest thought stimulus. Of course, there are exceptions, but it is wholly uncommon for anything to cause a visceral sensation that truly makes the viewer stop and question their reality. Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, is one of those exceptions. One scene in particular, where the prisoners of the Amistad, shackled, await on their knees in a haphazard line of pushing and clawing for a fistful of slop – their daily meal – and devour it like animals, licking up each bit from their faces, their arms, the ground, is nothing short of heartbreaking. Upon seeing this, I was met with a deep, consuming, empty feeling in my stomach. And the emotion I felt was guilt as much as disgust. It is the ability of Amistad to have this effect on the viewer that makes it so special. It does this on five main fronts: gripping storyline, fine tuned cinematography, balanced (though slightly misguided) soundtrack, dynamic acting, and well-executed but not overbearing editing.


Storyline: 5/5

Amistad is a historical drama that chronicles the horrific but unquestionably significant 1839 journey of 53 slaves on board the vessel Amistad that stage a mutiny and end up in America. There, a heated trial ensues as to the rightful owners of the slaves. Their Spanish traders maintain that they originate from Havana, but there is overwhelming evidence to suggest they are Sierra Leonean. A young but intrepid lawyer, Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), takes on the case, and struggles against the biased legal system and the communication barrier between him and the leader of the slaves, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), to prove the slaves’ free state. The case makes its way to the Supreme Court, attracting the eye of such figures as Martin Van Buren, Queen Isabella of Spain, and strong abolitionist John Quincy Adams. With the threat of civil war hanging overhead, a shocking decision is reached as to whether or not the Amistad prisoners should be allowed to return home. The film is one of great intrigue and suspense, and one that draws the viewer in and causes them to become desperately invested in the outcome of the trial. The parallel narratives of Roger Baldwin and the long list of names opposing him, broken up by moments of both horror and heartthrob as more is learned about Cinque and the others’ backstory, is a unique way of storytelling, and it results in a plot that is surprisingly without a dull moment for a legal thriller.


Cinematography: 4.5/5

The cinematography of Amistad is nothing short of masterful, and reflects a fine attention to detail on the part of the film crew. Both lighting and camerawork are subtle, but are used with definitive purpose to add to the overall effect of the movie. One example of the brilliance of the lighting is how scenes are often extremely dark with the exclusion of one key portion, the intention being to draw the viewer’s eye to the most important part of the shot, such as when Cinque becomes feverish in the courtroom before standing up and repeatedly shouting “give us free”. The witness stand, bench, and all the seats surrounding him are dim, but Cinque is strategically placed in front of a window to highlight his actions. As for camerawork, shots are generally busy, filled with many bodies, in an attempt to keep the energy up during courtroom scenes. Contrastly, closeups of one person in particular are used intermittently, again to highlight significant parts of a particular scene. Additionally, the camera often searches the crowd, deliberately waiting to pick out one subject, in order to add suspense, and complex focusing maneuvers are implemented to add distinct, tasteful flare.


Soundtrack: 3.5/5

Overall, the soundtrack of Amistad is pleasant to listen to. There is seemingly always music of some sort playing softly in the background, and this does add to the general feel. That being said, the music is often orchestral and gives off a very patriotic vibe, especially in the courtroom. This is a blatant misrepresentation of the circumstances of the Amistad prisoners’ journey. The slaves were brutalized – shackled, whipped, thrown overboard when food supplies ran low. Their story is not one of pride and happiness, but rather of unspeakable mistreatment. Although downbeat music is present at times, to saturate the entirety of the film with the aforementioned style is to misconstrue small legal victories as a success on the part of the entire nation. In reality, practically everyone in the United States with the exception of the underdog team portrayed in the film was stubbornly against freeing the slaves. As such, the soundtrack of Amistad comes off as out of place and in poor taste. Moreover, the orchestral style is so prevalent throughout the movie that it becomes stale and loses its intended effect in moments of real achievement, hence the 3.5/5.


Acting: 4.5/5

What makes the actors of Amistad so good at what they do is their ability to be dynamic. Each and every character displays change throughout the story, which makes the final resolution seem much more believable. Matthew McConaughey as Roger Baldwin starts off naive and overeager, but gains maturity and perspective as the storyline progresses. Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams begins as a well-intentioned but frail and timid old man, and ends up coming to Baldwin’s aid and making a surprisingly strong, inspired argument to the Supreme Court. Djimon Hounsou plays the hardened, cold Cinque, but by the end forms a strong friendship with Baldwin and steps into his role as an admirable, courageous leader. Morgan Freeman as Theodore Joadson is a black man in America – the same as the man whom Cinque referred to as a white when he first arrived in Connecticut – but manages to reconnect to his past and relate to the slaves like he could not before. Nigel Hawthorne as Martin Van Buren, in an opposite manner, begins in support of Baldwin’s cause but is intimidated into denouncing it later on in the movie. Even Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays the translator Covey, pulls off a tenable maturation process. The changing and increasingly complex nature of the acting in Amistad is noticeable, and does wonders to hook the audience emotionally and heighten the weight of the snowball effect that is the legal process surrounding the case, giving it a 4.5/5.


Editing: 4/5

The editing in Amistad is certainly respectable, but is nothing to write home about. Of course, a movie of this genre does not demand hefty of that nature, but a small sample size prevents this category from deserving more than a 4/5. The only editing comes in the form of on-screen text describing setting, fading transitions that offer smoothness, and a few cool features such as one place in which the video was flipped upside down and projected onto a lens to make it appear as if the viewer was looking through a camera while watching the events of the scene unfold. Aside from this, not much visual manipulation is implemented at all. What is done, however, is executed well, and adequately fulfills its role in the grand scheme of things.


Overall: 86/100

Overall, Amistad is an incredibly moving movie, and one that few other films can hold a candle to in terms of stirring real thought within the viewer. On the whole, it executes the five components that were discussed well, with the one exception being a sugarcoated soundtrack. Despite that, it is definitely worth seeing. The title of this review says it all: it will make you truly feel something, and for that it is inherently valuable. So go watch Amistad now, but be sure to bring along a stress ball. You’ll need it.