Friday, April 15, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXIII: This... is how far I've come


Our director takes on slavery, and it's far better than you likely remember.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by David Franzoni
With Djimon Hounsou (Cinque), Matthew McConaughey (Roger Sherman Baldwin), Morgan Freeman (Theodore Joadson), Stellan Skarsgaard (Lewis Tappan), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Ens. James Covey), Anthony Hopkins (Sen. John Quincy Adams), Razaaq Adati (Yamba), Peter Firth (Capt. Fitzgerald), Jeremy Northam (Judge Coglin), Pete Postlethwaite (U.S. District Attorney William S. Holabird), Anna Paquin (Queen Isabella II of Spain), and Nigel Hawthorne (Pres. Martin Van Buren)

Spoiler alert: N/A

Oh, what to make of poor Amistad, which might be as forgotten as any movie Steven Spielberg ever made, reduced over the years to just one crude soundbyte, which far too many folks don't even have the basic integrity to get right.  It's "Give us us free," not "Give us free"; and I'm sure that sounds like the piddliest correction possibleuntil you realize that the former (while the diction could clearly use some work) is an actual product of English syntax.  So it flows, it makes sense, and it stops being the cartoonish interjection of a Noble Savage, deployed for the pleasure of Spielberg's presumed white audience.  It becomes again what it always was, and was always intended to be: the moment that a man, certain that if he does not speak his voice will be forever lost, finally cried out.  And thus, if it's hardly the single most potent moment in Amistad, it can surely still be counted amongst their majestic legions.

Amistad represents the continuation of a pattern in Spielberg's career, too, which I have only glancingly mentioned before: his propensity for releasing two films in quick succession, often in the same year, one heavier, the other lighter.  Of course, it bares more than a passing resemblance to the "one-for-me/one-for-you" alternation you might find in the career of other, lesser directors; but, equally obviously, the idea that Spielberg, by this point either already a billionaire or very, very close to becoming one, might ever again need to make a movie for anybody but himself is bound to be suspect.  On the other hand, I suppose that Spielberg, the incorrigible populist, shall always possess an innate need to try to please his audience—no matter how high the stack of money he sleeps on gets.

Regardless, 1997 saw Spielberg at last returning to filmmaking after the longest gap in his directorial career—four long years of capitalistic wrangling, alongside Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, to get DreamWorks SKG off the ground.  And, just as he had back in 1993, with Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, in 1997 Spielberg delivered what were surely intended to be yet another pair of knockout punches, entertainment in the right hand and edification in the left: The Lost World and Amistad.

The outcome was less than satisfactory: The Lost World made money, but its reputation has done nothing but decay in the last 19 years, till it has become one of the few Spielberg movies, alongside 1941 and Always, that almost everyone agrees kind of sucks; meanwhile, Amistad, neither loved nor hated, but often held in something like contempt, has been relegated to the category of "minor Spielberg."  Its legacy has been diminished all the further by the 2012 release of Lincoln, Spielberg's other movie about 19th century America and our ongoing relationship with slavery, and Lincoln remains quite beloved indeed, for reasons I hope to better comprehend once I return to it in a couple of weeks.  Right this second, however, I have no idea at all how anyone could stand Amistad and Lincoln next to each other, and not perceive the former as a better story that is also told in a vastly superior way.  I have no recourse but to assume that it has something to do with how old white men standing around tables and talking about politics for two and a half fucking hours is considered more "mature."

Well, you know that I just sort-of described Amistad, too, or at least the image of Amistad which its detractors have fixed in their minds—slavery, the American answer to the Nazi Holocaust, reduced to legal maneuvering and courtroom grandstanding, inside a script that seems to be only modestly aware of how the American judicial system actually functions.  (With the assistance of Spielberg's pair of courtroom dramas, the other being Bridge of Spies, I have come to the conclusion that no screenwriter has ever so much as heard of the United States' several courts of appeals.)  And so, in Amistad, a mute African and his friends have their case made for them by various heroic white guys (and Morgan Freeman!), and it all ends (or, more accurately, it climaxes) in a somewhat stultifying eleven minute speech about the underlying immorality of slavery, addressed to the Supreme Court in lieu of a legal argument, and which invokes—apparently without any irony at all—the names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  It is, in any event, the worst part of the movie—and it's still not really that bad.

But thankfully that's only half of what Amistad offers; and the other half is the "mute" African himself.

In 1839, we find ourselves aboard the Amistad, a Spanish vessel still engaged in the transatlantic slave trade some decades after international treaties (and the might of the righteous Royal Navy) has rendered that trade illegal.  After embarking from the renegade Portuguese slave fortress of Lomboko, in modern-day Sierra Leone, the Amistad's "cargo" stages a revolt.  Led by Cinque, the bravest and strongest of the lot—or, perhaps (and as he considers himself) only the luckiest—the stolen Africans succeed, killing almost everybody.  They do spare two crewmen (after all, they still need someone who knows how to run the ship); unfortunately, the devious sailors manage to trick the mutineers, steering the Amistad westward.  And thus, when they arrive upon the shores of America, a U.S. Navy cutter takes custody of the vessel, and this is where the Africans' troubles begin.

Charged with mutiny upon the high seas, and with a half-dozen claims laid against them as property from sources as far afield as the surviving Spanish crewmen, the Queen of Spain, and even the U.S. Navy officers who "salvaged" them, Cinque and his fellows languish, awaiting trial and (probably) execution.  But soon their cause attracts the attention of the abolitionists Lewis Tappan and Theodore Joadson (the latter being a composite/completely fictional character introduced to give the film at least a hint of African-American presence).

The abolitionists hire the only attorney in Connecticut willing to take the case, a stagecoach chaser by the name of Roger Sherman Baldwin.  His run-down attire and pig-infested office might just be a nod to the unrelenting shittiness of the real 19th century, but his morally-disengaged, overtly-lawyerly demeanor indicates a need for some serious personal enlightenment.  Correctly and blithely determining that the Amistad case turns upon property law, rather than natural law, let alone the law of God ("But Christ lost," he says, in the film's sharpest, funniest line), Baldwin goes into court to do battle with the evil district attorney.

And he does, by all accounts—including the account of America's former president, John Quincy Adams—a rather brilliant job.  Baldwin diligently investigates the case, brings in expert witnesses from the Royal Navy to testify about the reality of the illegal slave trade, and—most importantly—develops an actual relationship with Cinque, and through him to the rest of his clients.  That relationship is strengthened all the more once Joadson finds a Mende translator in the Royal Navy's James Covey, himself a former slave, just as Joadson once was.  And now we learn what happened before the mutiny; it is, in a word, horrifying.

If not for another, more meddlesome president, Martin Van Buren, there is no doubt that things would have ended here, in a trial court victory.  But there are many layers of process—and a legal determination at trial is subject to a reappraisal upon appeal, and thus do Baldwin and Cinque and the other Africans, joined at last by a resurgent Adams, take their case to the Supreme Court.

In this summary, it's true that Cinque figures hardly at all: he is the subject of the case, yes, but on the surface, the story revolves around the free men (and the freedmen) who fight on his behalf.  Yet there is absolutely no mistaking him for anything but the central character of his own film.  Spielberg fits him in, not as a dark-skinned statue around which others may debate, but as a participant—yet one naturally very alienated (and even alien) to the slave republic to which he has been brought, isolated from his enemies as well as his allies by language and by custom and, truth be told, by the color of his skin, too, as a pointed, friendship-ending exchange between freed slave Joadson and white immigrant Tappan makes quite upsettingly clear.  Meanwhile, he interacts with his fellow Africans, at least one of whom (Yamba) rises to the status of a character himself, within this grand (albeit only vaguely historical) American pageant.

Clearly, the reason Amistad exists in the first place is in order to tell Cinque's tale: it opens with his daring escape, and, later, when he has been able to process it for himself, it offers the central stage for his recounting of the awful middle passage that justified the bloody destruction his mutiny occasioned.  Then it keeps our attention upon Cinque, whose outburst in the court underlines his humanity; and, later, it wrestles with Cinque's self-doubt, and his exhaustion.  Lucky for Spielberg, he got Djimon Hounsou, who has been less well-served since this film, although even now you'd have to be blind not to sense the potential for stardom in that face and commanding physical carriage—even if you'd never seen Amistad itself, in which Hounsou is called upon to do something not unlike silent film acting, and does it expertly, for nearly half the film.

How it irks me when people write off Amistad as anyone else's story but his.  This, I imagine, is the danger when cultural commentators, steeped principally in literary analysis, seek to weigh in on a medium they ill-understand.  And so when you listen to their criticisms, which tend to ask the wrong questions about Cinque's initial inability to make himself understood in purely verbal terms, you wonder if they had ever actually seen any movie, let alone a Steven Spielberg movie.  In Amistad, Spielberg does what he's always done best, which is to hold up the pure image as his most favored form of communication; and it is with image, gesture, expression, and composition, in both time and space, that he and his hero communicate to us.

(At this point, however, it is worth noting Spielberg's shockingly broken attempt to do something clever with subtitles.  For the first phase of Amistad, it's only the white men—the Spanish—who receive onscreen translation, and this is an interesting, even nervy formal gambit, emphasizing that Cinque and his fellows don't "belong" here, which they don't, having been stolen from their homes.  But then, almost arbitrarily, the Africans do start getting subtitles for their dialogue, and it is beyond obvious that the only reason for this transition is because Spielberg has realized that the more subtle thoughts they're now conveying between themselves can no longer be delivered to the audience through visual means alone.  And it really doesn't help that Cinque and Yamba's very first translated lines are also the ones that come the closest to making them into silly Others.)

But Cinque, who is mostly "silent," is therefore naturally the subject of the film's three most dynamic sequences: the mutiny; the middle passage; and the moment that takes us into his subjective experience of the trial, as he perceives the wasted time and the boredom of the white men in the courtroom, leading him to cry out from the prisoners' dock.  Indeed, the mutiny that opens Amistad is especially glorious filmmaking—with only lightning and dim moonlight to illuminate our scene, we must scrutinize the details, if we want to understand.  (But we soon understand entirely well.)  The depiction of the middle passage, later, is not really that strictly necessary to comprehend either the plot or Cinque's motivations—that is never in the slightest doubt, and I have a suspicion that Spielberg separates cause and effect in Amistad because he wants us to derive a certain joy from the destruction of the slavers, without undercutting it with the misery that led to it.  But Spielberg knows that it shall eventually be necessary to go back—not because we are unaware of what occurred there, but because to avoid it would be to keep silent, and Amistad is more than anything about breaking silence.

That is why I suppose my favorite scene—such as I have not already detailed, at least—must be the moment when Baldwin meets with Cinque in prison, and through pictures and the use of their bodies, they finally talk to each other.  It is likewise the moment where cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's customary tricks work their best—to watch Cinque walk into obscuring fog, demonstrating how lost he feels, is as quietly devastating as anything else in the film.

Of course, that does mean that Kaminski's customary tricks don't necessarily work all the time; but he uses them anyway, and thus every window has a floodlight behind it—except, of course, for the one that has a giant Goddamned American flag waving on the other side.

Still, Amistad's a largely handsome picture, composed impeccably (and if it's too often composed with far, far too many giant shafts of light, at the very least they tend toward a golden warmth rather than bluish-white glare).  And there is one moment that is frankly brilliant in its simplicity, matching the three cruciform masts of a tall ship, not unlike the one that brought the Africans here, against the pictures from the Bible story they had just read—namely, Jesus upon the cross.  It hammers home, forcefully yet elegantly, the Christ metaphor that Spielberg's been playing around with for the whole movie (indeed, from its very opening frames, which concern themselves with Cinque's bloodied fingers, pulling a nail from a plank of wood).

The ship is made to represent these men and women's cross; the Atlantic, their Golgotha; but Christ lost, and so did most Africans who found themselves (or their ancestors) carried to America across the ocean.  Amistad is certainly aware of its context—almost too aware, when it keeps harping upon our "impending" Civil War.  (Still, it remains a significantly more focused film than Schindler's List, and that tighter focus is both better and worse, given that both films share the exact same Achilles' heel—to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick's takedown of List, while slavery might have been about the eight million or so Africans who died in chains, Amistad is about the 53 Africans who were set free.)

Well, either way, Amistad is acted much in the same way that it is shot: that is, handsomely, yet with a noticeable penchant for overwrought declamation.  And we find Spielberg marshaling a genuine all-star cast, none of them worse than the other.  Meanwhile, with so many famous faces, none stands out as inappropriate—not even Anthony Hopkins, doing his very best impression of Anthony Hopkins as a 19th Century New Englander.  But one man stands out as very nearly rivaling Hounsou himself, in quality (if hardly in quantity), and it's perhaps the most unlikely one of all: I mean Peter Firth, portraying the RN's Captain Fitzgerald, whose evocation of a staunch, starchy, sarcastic Britishness is honestly almost thrilling, coming as it does in the context of a patriotic play about America where the only nation actually presented as properly heroic is the United Kingdom.

Amistad does find its way into problem territory with its patriotism, that much is for certain—it is so high on America's potential for awesomeness that Adams' line, "Who we are is who we were," is in some ways unparsable.  Does it mean the greatness of our ancestors is within us still?  Or does it mean we need to think about how our oppressive past continues to shape our oppressive present?  Well, it's not completely unintelligible.  It's quite clearly the former, even if you can read the latter into it, if you really wanted to.  On this count, then, Amistad's critics aren't completely wrong.

Yet it's a film of enormous power, this Amistad: one of the best films about slavery (out of all five or six of them worth discussing). As much as it is a credit to Spielberg's determination to get to the bottom of this thing we call "history," it is even more a credit to his unparalleled, supernatural ability to just tell a story.

Score:  9/10

1 comment:

  1. I'm not going to lie, any film that shows slavery and slavers come off worst earns it's place in my good books, but Captain Fitzgerald in all his sarcastic majesty propels it right onto my list of Favourite Things (With plenty of help from Cinque, his legal team, poor Mr Joadson's quietly devastating episode of PTSD, John Quincey Adams doubtless making his Papa very proud, the free folk of the Amsted ... dang, there's a lot to love in this film and I haven't even mentioned the half of it).