A measure of a successful movie need not be limited to its box office take or its number of wins at the end of awards’ season, but should also take into account how well the story, cast, and visuals hold up upon subsequent viewings decades later. For Steven Spielberg’s 1997 historical drama, Amistad, the four Oscar nominations took some of the sting out of a poor box office performance, but this 175-year-old tale of a struggle for freedom is, sadly, still very relevant to contemporary times. Additionally, the film’s excellent cast is a treasure trove of both veteran actors and young up-and-comers who would go on to make a big name for themselves in later years. Now that Amistad is available on Blu-ray, you can revisit the film for yourself. Hit the jump for my Amistad Blu-ray review.
Based on the true story of the 1839 uprising by newly captured Mende slaves aboard the ship La Amistad, Amistad follows the journey of the group – led by tribal leader Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) – from their harsh treatment on the vessel, to their eventual arrival in the U.S., through to an international legal battle over their freedom that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841. While Spielberg and screenwriter David Franzoni likely take some liberties while adapting historian Howard Jones’ 1987 book, “Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy,” the end result is a timeless tale of man’s struggle for freedom against those who would unjustly deny it.
Historical context aside, the real lasting strength of Amistad can be found in its cast. From veteran actors like scene-stealer Sir Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Hawthorne, and Morgan Freeman, to a fine performance by Matthew McConaughey, to then young up-and-comers Hounsou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Anna Paquin, this movie is great to watch again after 17 years as sort of a “Where Are They Now?” bonus. Hounsou, deservedly, was talked up for his performance in this film, which could be considered his breakout role. Ejiofor, who was just nominated for an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, is equally charismatic, even if audiences didn’t recognize his talent at the time. And Oscar-winner Paquin (The Piano) has some fun as the then-nine-year-old Queen Isabella II of Spain.
While it’s not exactly a “feel good” movie in any sense (especially considering the historical tag at the very end of the film), Amistad does exemplify Spielberg’s particular brand of schmaltz seen in a lot of his films. There are wonderful moments throughout, such as Cinque’s English outburst in court, McConaughey’s character’s dedication to the cause, and, of course, Hopkins’ final speech to the Supreme Court as John Quincy Adams. There’s also a fair amount of brutality on display, scenes that are all too real, and all too common today, almost two centuries later. Amistad is a worthy addition to any movie library, especially if you’re a Spielberg fan, and while the Blu-ray isn’t exactly overloaded with bonus features, the one behind-the-scenes extra it does come with is a worthwhile watch.
The Making of Amistad (25 minutes) – Behind-the-scenes footage with commentary from Spielberg, producer Debbie Allen, Freeman, Hounsou, McConaughey, Hopkins, and the people who played the Amistad Africans. There’s a nice bio piece on Hounsou, who was just starting to gain traction in his career in ’97; a focus on the on-set translator; a look at the set creation with commentary from the film’s Oscar-laden crew; and a lot of footage with Spielberg giving direction to his actors between scenes.
The Original Amistad Trailer