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Amistad (1997)

From the DVD Shelf: Amistad (1997)

My revisitation of the last decade-and-a-half of the films of Steven Spielberg continues!  I’ve already looked at Jurassic Park and The Lost World, which brings me now to 1997’s Amistad.

In an attempt to recapture the magic of 1993 (in which he released two films in a single year, the dramatic historical film Schindler’s List as well as the crowd-pleasing action spectacle Jurassic Park), in 1997 Mr. Spielberg released both the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World as well as the historical epic Amistad.

In 1839 a group of African slaves broke free aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad and killed most of the crew.  When they were intercepted by an American naval vessel, the slaves were imprisoned and brought to trial.  A group of abolitionists became aware of the case, and hired a young, inexperienced lawyer named Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to take the case.  Mr. Baldwin was forced to retry the case multiple times, as the politics of a nation heading towards Civil War bestowed upon this small case an enormous weight in the potential fate of the nation.  Ultimately, the case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) assisted Mr. Baldwin in arguing for the release of the Amistad slaves.

As is often the case, Mr. Spielberg assembled a talented group of actors to embody the characters in the film.  Mr. McConaughey does a fine job as the jovial, slightly naive lawyer Baldwin.  The role doesn’t feel like much of a stretch for him (particularly after playing a lawyer the year before as the lead in 1996’s A Time to Kill), but he reins in some of his more over-the-top mannersisms which allows him to fit well into this historical drama.  Fresh off of The Lost Word, Pete Postlewaite pops up again as an equally unlikable fellow — this time, he’s the lawyer assigned to prosecute the Amistad case.  Stellan Skarsgard and Morgan Freeman play the abolitionists who are drawn to help the Amistad slaves.  Though neither has much to do in the film, both make the most of their small parts.  Other familiar, talented members of the cast include Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin van Buren, David Paymer (The Larry Sanders Show, State and Main) as Secretary Forsythe, Xander Berkeley (24) as the presidential advisor Hammond, Anna Paquin (X-Men, True Blood) as Queen Isabella, and I was pleasantly surprised that I had forgotten that Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Spartan) has a fairly substantial role as the translator who assists Mr. Baldwin in communicating with the Amistad slaves.

But the two standouts of Amistad are Djimon Hounsou as … [continued]