FOUR STARS - Inspiring
There are only a handful of films which compare with the spiritual and social depth of Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.”
Based on a true incident in 1839, the film asks the ultimate questions and gives inspiring and compelling answers.
The arena in which this dialogue takes place is the issue of slavery in the pre-Civil War United States. Like most social issues, slavery forced people to struggle not only with each other, but within them selves to discover the deepest truths about our humanity.
The fuse which ignited this dialogue was the revolt of the slaves imprisoned in the Spanish slave ship La Amistad. Shackled with 53 other illegally captured Africans while sailing from a
Cuban slave market to a plantation on the other side of the island, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) freed himself and his fellow prisoners and then killed all but two of the crew.
When they tried to force the two remaining crew members to take them back to Africa, they were tricked and taken up the eastern coast of the United States instead. When finally they arrived in Connecticut, they were taken into custody by the United States government and charged with murder.
It is then that the dialogue begins within the court system regarding property rights versus human rights, and the issue of slavery ignites the forces of political activism in American society.
The prisoner’s defense was financed and championed by the Christian abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard).
They hired a young civil attorney, Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey,) who did not share their abolitionist views, but rather saw this as a simple legal question of property and country or origin.
As in the solution of most social issues, the immorality of slavery had begun to haunt the soul of Americans. Therefore, the movement to end slavery had systematically limited its practice. Through the art of political compromise, the Christian abolitionists had been successful in making it illegal to go to Africa and capture new slaves, but it was not yet illegal for a plantation-born slave to be sold and owned as property.
It was on this issue that the courts ruled in favor of the “Amistad Africans.” They were proven by Baldwin to have been born in Africa and so were therefore neither the property of the Cubans who claimed to have purchased them, or guilty of murder in their attempt at freeing themselves from kidnap.
But as is the case in most political compromises, the morality of the underlying issues would not be solved by such a decision.
The “Amistad Africans” became a political symbol for the inherent struggle between the North and the South. With the hand of President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) forced by a Southern senator , he overturned the decision of the lower courts and appealed the case to the Supreme Court, on which seven of the nine justices were slave owners from the South.
It is then that former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) argued the case.
It is through the processes of these court decisions that we haveprofound discussions regarding the issues defining the meaning of our lives.
Baldwin comes to see these Africans as persons and not property.
Joadson comes to see the individual Africans as unique persons with private journeys and not just as slaves to be freed by his abolitionist efforts.
Cinque comes to hear that Jesus Christ is the ultimate sufferer of injustice and the ultimate victor in life.
And our nation comes face to face with the ultimate Biblical truth that the true state of all human beings is freedom. This “Right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is not just a declaration made at the founding of our nation, but is truly an “unalienable right” given to us by our Creator.
The social issues with which a nation struggles are the anvil on which its people individually and collectively forge deeper values and purposes. “Amistad” is a film of great value not only for its historical understanding, but its guidance in the current social issues with which we are now struggling.