"Amistad" sets out to tackle an unfavourable period of American history with decidedly mixed results.
Set in the 1830s, the film is based on the two volumes of "Amistad" essays that chronicle the uprising of African slaves who seize control of their Spanish captor's ship and attempt to return home. As is often the case in film-making, history has been remoulded for the sake of dramatic tension. Ironically, the end result is distinctly underwhelming, despite the challenging fusion of both experienced and fresh talent involved.
Leading the practiced is director Steven Spielberg, with his undeniable skill for box office success, and emboldened by his work on "Schindler's List". With him, he brings such seasoned acting pros as Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman, music from John Williams, and the brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski who captures it all with low-lit precision. Heading up the new talent is Djimon Hounsou, who plays the leader of the slaves, all of whom are members of the Mende, Temne, and Kissi tribes of Africa.
Hounsou invests his role with dignity, simmering power, and real soul. He speaks volumes through understatement, with the unfortunate result that all the established thesps involved glare with their acting technique. The script only exacerbates the problem by concentrating on a stilted and often-laborious courtroom process. When Spielberg breaks free from the dialogue-heavy structure, he shines with trademark brilliance. The scenes aboard the slave ship convey heart-wrenching sadness in a few visual minutes, only to then be suffocated with tedium. It's a shame because these brief moments of visceral fire allow glimpses into the rousing movie this could have been.
Read a review of the DVD.