Thursday, March 22, 2007


AMISTAD (1997, USA, Steven Spielberg, screenplay David Franzoni)
Their people have suffered more than ours. Their lives were full of suffering. Then he was born, and everything changed.

A sometimes harrowing, ultimately uplifting account of an uprising of African prisoners on a Cuban slave ship and the ensuing trial, which not only determined their fate but marked an irrevocable turning point in the Abolitionist campaign in the years leading up to the Civil War. If the film was under-praised in its day (suffering, I think, from back-to-back comparison with SCHINDLER'S LIST, Spielberg's masterpiece), it has nevertheless found an enduring audience, particularly among Christians. It is surprising to see what an important role Christian spirituality plays in the film: given that, it is also curious to realize that the film seems determined to diminish the central role Christians played in this remarkable story.

Where the film follows on from the director's deeply affecting holocaust film is in its portrayal of "America's holocaust" (well, one of them), though this film restricts its field of vision to a single group of slaves in a succession of slave ships and prisons. AMISTAD does not chart the whole history of slavery in America, but the images it does give us are unshakeable, particularly aboard the notorious "Tecora," which transported its human cargo from Africa to Cuba. The voices of those who berate the film as sentimental turn tinny and callous when one remembers the depiction of men and women being selectively starved, shackled in rows in the holds of ships or chained together and cast overboard. And the Europeans thought the heart of darkness was to be found Africa? The horror, the horror.

The charges of sentimentality are significantly questions of style, I think. The film does have an expensive history movie look to it – some may prefer something starker for the setting or subject matter – but I think much of that perception may originate with the soundtrack. This score is, is, as the Amistat incident itself, a curious collision of two cultures. The African music is striking. We're not talking township jive here, but, I suppose, Big Screen African: children's choir and plaintive solo voices in a strange tongue over pulsing rhythms. Easy to like if you're not an ethno-musicologist. The American music is more problematic for more people. It's that mid-century Americana that sounds like Aaron Copeland's lyrical stuff (better leave the drums to the Africans, I guess they thought). At times you think you're in Disneyland watching "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln." When I'm feeling dismissive, I think of it as Americorn, and apparently that's how it struck the ears of plenty of the film's critics.

But you know, I don't mind that stuff. If it sounds like movie music, well, who am I to complain? I love movies! And now and then I don't mind one that sounds like one. If you can praise the unabashedly cinematic STAR WARS score, why quibble when another film (same composer) plays a similar game? Perhaps for some the strategy reduces an important and true-ish story about slavery to the level of a Sat-mat space opera. I guess that's in the ear of the behearer.

Another personal proclivity that exerts a huge influence on perceptions of this film has to do with the tensions between history and invention. The film departs from some details of the actual history of the events, not only conflating characters and inventing dramatically compelling histories for them, but also going so far as to cook up a different kind of Presidential meddling for Martin Van Buren to mess around with, for example, as a way to render the historical reality of his role into something readily comprehensible in the flow of the story. From my reading, I'd say the screenplay does a better job than most of sticking to the story: walk out of the theatre and turn to an historical account and, apart from running the risk of bogging down in legal minutiae, you won't feel like you've been mislead.

Except in one regard. If you happen to care about the one moment in history when Bible-believing church folk unarguably got it right.

It's a shame that evangelical Christians don't know their own history – and that this otherwise illuminating film will do nothing to enlighten them in the matter. But the fact is, it was their political perseverence in both England and America that changed the course of history, literally carrying out Jesus' mandate of proclaiming release to the captives – and paying huge personal costs to back up their message. In both countries it was protestant Christians who led the Abolitionist cause which ultimately put an end to slavery in the new world. But you won't find that out watching AMISTAD.

The three men who led the campaign to free the Amistad Africans were devout Protestant believers: Lewis Tappan, a wealthy New England merchant; Joshua Leavitt, a Congregational minister and editor of "The Emancipator"; and Simeon Jocelyn, pastor to New Haven's first black church. It was Christian students from Yale University who taught the prisoners English, and once the Africans were freed from prison it was Christian congregations that provided for them during the eight months they remained in the United States, and raised the money to hire a ship to return them to their homes in Africa. (Apparently the American government was quite prepared to ship them back to the slave prisons in Cuba, but couldn't see their way clear to pointing a boat in a more easterly direction to get these people home).

In the film, only one of the men fighting for the freedom of the Amistad Africans is shown to have any religious convictions, the historical character Lewis Tappan, but the last we hear from him is a cynical comment that the prisoners "May be more valuable to our struggle in death than in life." It is up to the fictional and curiously religion-free Peter Joadson to voice the audience's revulsion at such a statement: "What is true, Mr. Tappan – and believe me when I tell you I've seen this – is that there are some men whose hatred of slavery is stronger than anything. Except for the slave himself." And that's the last we see of the (apparently) bigoted abolitionist: no day in Supreme court for that unfeeling dog. What an insulting portrayal! You might just as well call Martin Luther King a racist, or accuse Desmond Tutu of sympathizing with apartheid.

Indeed, the film makers seem to go out of their way to portray Christians as dour and ineffectual bystanders to the action, lining the roads the prisoners travel between jailhouse and courtroom, holding out crosses and offering Bibles (which the Africans cannot read). When they gather outside the prison to pray, we see them from the Africans' perspective. "Looks like they're going to be sick." The Christians begin some dreary singing (is Amazing Grace the only hymn these Hollywood types know, for God's sake?). "They're entertainers. But why do they look so miserable?" Understandably, the Africans turn away.

But as unwilling as Franzoni and Spielberg may be to give evangelical Christians their due, they confound us by offering one of the most remarkable presentations of the Christian gospel to be found on film, intercut with a remarkable sequence of a man wrestling with his conscience in a Catholic church. Yamba leafs through a Bible he previously wrenched from the grasp of one of the odder-looking Christians on display in the film, and intuitively – almost miraculously – comes to understand the Jesus story simply by contemplating its Gustave Dore illustrations, and seeing Christ's identification with their suffering. "He was captured. Accused of some crime. Here he is with his hands tied." Another prisoner says, "He must have done something," to which Yamba replies, "Why? What did we do?"

Lacking a word for the cross on which Jesus has been crucified, he draws one in the air before him, as the film cuts to the man in the church crossing himself at the foot of a lifelike crucifix. The man prays in Latin, its foreignness blending with the strangeness of Yamba's Mendi language. "They wrapped him in a cloth, like we do. They thought he was dead, but he appeared before his people again and spoke to them. Then, finally, he rose into the sky. This is where the soul goes when you die. This is where we're going when they kill us. It doesn't look so bad." Is some possibly mystical connection being suggested between the events in the cell and what's happening in the sanctuary? And when the identity of the man in the church is revealed, we see that these possibly linked events provide a critical turning point.

(Interesting to note that Franzoni's next screenplay also finds its primary spiritual interest in a slave's yearning for heaven – in another film which, it might be argued, leaves the Christians on the editing room floor. GLADIATOR is followed by the woeful KING ARTHUR, again centred on liberty, this time endeavouring to restore the essentially Christian core that most retellings of these quasi-historical myths have removed – even if it Arty is pretty much a Pelagian heretic. By the way, if Franzoni's penning of these successively weaker scripts gives you pause, no need: AMISTAD stands as a very well crafted screenplay, that yields up more detail on each successive viewing.)

The film's strongest, if less explicit, gospel resonance may come from what is admittedly a commonplace in "triumph against overwhelming odds" flicks, but which has particular power here – perhaps because the theme is woven into so many aspects of the plot, perhaps because it is so essential to the improbable story of slaves finding their freedom in pre-Civil War America. At the heart of Jesus' teachings is the idea of strength in weakness, the fact that God chooses the weak and powerless to shame the privileged and powerful. And that's the cloth that AMISTAD is cut from, as we come to see great strength and dignity in characters who begin the story in chains, barely considered human, and witness the same kind of transformation in those who take up their cause; a former slave, a crassly opportunistic lawyer, and a doddering ex-president. In a paradigmatic scene, the lawyer appeals for help from Cinque: "I'm not a great orator or advisor, not a big man. When we go to court, I need you to speak." Cinque insists that he cannot speak for the others. "What's this I hear about a lion? You alone slew the most terrifying beast..." To which Cinque replies, "I am not a big man. Just a lucky one." Yet in the final stage of the legal process, John Quincy Adams singles out both men for praise before the highest court in the land, and his tribute carries the ring of divine blessing, of the last being first, the lowly called up to the highest place.

The film's greatest artistic accomplishments lie in the work of Djimon Hounsou as Cinque and Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams. These actors chart the progression of their characters with virtuostic skill and range, Hounsou in a break-out performance of tremendous passion and presence, Hopkins with one of the most layered and detailed characterizations of his extraordinary career. It may be a screenwriting truism characters must strive to change something in their world, and themselves be changed in the pursuit, but performances of this potency make transformation tangible, visible, specific, testifying in their very bodies to the hope that we may all be changed, may all be honoured.

These themes culminate in the climactic courtroom scene, when "Old Man Eloquent" presents his final arguments before the Supreme Court. In a day of superficial sound bites and market-driven political sloganeering, it is an immense privilege to listen to ten minutes of compelling rhetoric, a movie climax that has the courage to rely on words and ideas alone. (Actually, words and ideas and gobs of patriotic music, but I'll overlook that: I'm not letting that particular over-indulgence ruin an otherwise tremendous scene.)

Actually, words and ideas and a masterful performance. Watch Hopkins' command of nuance and innuendo as the now-formidable ex-president appeals at once to minds and hearts, flatters and bullies and condescends as he throws down his challenge to nine of the most powerful men in the land – seven of them Southern slaveholders. Carry out the unfinished business of the American Revolution, honour your forebears by taking their noblest ideals to their logical conclusion: free these people, whose fight for liberty on the decks of the Amistad was nothing less that the War of Independence writ small. He even dares to invite the cataclysm to come, with his implication that the "all men" who were declared equal by the founding fathers might just include not only the Amistad Africans, but black slaves throughout America.

We Canadians are a tad skeptical about appeals to Yankee nationalism: when I saw the statues in the Supreme Court, I couldn't help thinking how many of those champions of freedom had themselves been slave owners. I'm also a bit of a commie: when Queen Isabella of Spain wrote "The business of great countries is to do business. Slavery is a pillar of commerce in the new world," I couldn't help thinking "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" – which is French for "so what about those fancy runners you're wearing, and the third world sweat shops that whipped those up for ya?" And I'm a pacifist, not too convinced of the nobility of that whole "I'll kill anybody who stands in the way of my freedom" premise that seems to underlay the country's founding and entire subsequent history. I have to wonder why that reasoning was alright for oppressed peasant farmers in North America in 1776 or so, but not alright for oppressed peasant farmers in Central America in 1976 or so. America seems to apply the old "freedom fighter" label with a certain self-interested selectivity, to my far north way of thinking.

All that said, this movie reminded me that there's something deeply true in those ideals of liberty and equality – especially when you lay down your life so someone else can experience their benefits. They may live more in the ideals than in the practical outworking of American history, but I guess that's what makes them Ideals – and worth fighting for. In courts of law, and maybe even sometimes on battlefields or the decks of slave ships.


Available at Videomatica

1 comment:

RC said...

interesting thoughts...i haven't thought of this movie for a long time...

i remember seeing it at the dollar theater in the afternoon with my mom and sister on a day off from school.

i think you're dead on on many of your points. John Williams score is sad, an unfortunate, but the story is beautiful and important.

I'm glad this film was made, thanks for sharing your perspective.