AMISTAD: Spielberg And The Sword Of Empathy

Vyce discusses Spielberg's 1997 courtroom drama.

Whenever there are pieces of fiction made about the plight of African Americans in general and the great evil of American Slavery in particular, the stories often fall victim to several troublesome clichés. If I had to list the most egregious offenders, the top three for me would be, in no particular order: 1) The Noble Savage, where a character of a particular race or ethnic group, portrayed or perceived to be savage and barbaric, is exalted as nobler or of higher moral fiber than the supposed norm of his group; 2) The White Savior, where a benevolent white character endures and suffers to rescue colored people from their problems; and 3) The Gore Fetish; this one is less an established trope and more of a trend that I see all too often in movies, where the graphic brutality of slave beatings and inhumane conditions is framed and lingered upon in a fashion more often associated with exploitation slasher flicks than with dramatic period pieces.

In 1997, Steven Spielberg, seeking to expand his cinematic horizons and bolster the portfolio of his newly formed Dreamworks Studios, tried his hand at adding to the great pantheon of important slavery stories with the film, Amistad. His film would be based on the true story of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad, during which abducted Mende tribesmen managed to gain control of their captors' ship off the coast of Cuba, leading to an international legal battle that followed their capture by a United States maritime forces, and ultimately being resolved by the United States Supreme Court in 1841. Though the film garnered some Oscar nods, it received mixed reviews and flailed at the box office, earning $44 million during its theatrical run, becoming one of Spielberg's lowest grossing films. A lot of this can be attributed to the perception that Amistad plays into those aforementioned cliché pitfalls. However, while this would usually be the case for any normal director, a master like Spielberg wields these elements with a focused hand, the same one that weaves his distinct brand of empathy and compassion throughout all the works of his great career.

The central figure in the film is Cinque (formerly Sengbe Pieh) played by Djimon Hounsou in a role for the ages, the kind of performance that they say an actor is “born to play.” Through Hounsou's powerful screen presence and stature, the natural born leadership and courage of Cinque is made manifest. When we begin the film, however, we find Cinque in a dire state, prying the nails from the floor of a ghastly ship hold to which his chains are bound. He eventually breaks himself and fellow abductees free, and they then storm the ship deck, killing some of their tormentors in vicious fashion, in a thunderstorm of blood and lightning not unlike a horror film kill sequence. Because of the treachery of the surviving Spanish slave traders, they eventually make it to the US coast and are interned in a prison to await their fate.

Interestingly, for most of the film, Spielberg chooses to leave the foreign dialogue untranslated, only rarely providing subtitles for the Mende and Spanish spoken. On one hand, this demonstrates and emphasizes the inherent confusion involved with the communications between slaves, white American owners, Spanish traders and all other nations and dialects interacting at the time, but for many, this had the effect of distancing the viewer from the protagonist and his companions. Despite this, I think Spielberg was playing into this perception in order to effectively comment on it. It's not until midway through the film where the full breadth of Cinque's situation is revealed to us, thanks to the defense finally being able to find a translator in a young freed slave turned British sailor named Ensign Covey, played by none other than Chiwetel Motherfucking Ejiofor in his feature film debut. The brutality of Cinque's abduction is laid bare, and as the film goes on, we get further insight into his wisdom, his insecurities, his humanity. But remember, this is same noble man whom we saw savagely murder a white man with feral howls of blood lust in the film's opening, the same one whom we see only showing confused stares and incomprehensible babbling up until this point. But that's the twist; is that noble savage trope a failing of Spielberg's direction, or a reflection of the audience's own inherent bias? If you'd suffered Cinque's torture, would you not viciously, or desperately, kill your tormentors in the same manner? If you were stranded in a foreign land where incomprehensible men engage in outrageous customs, would you not feel bewildered and perplexed? If your very life was suddenly placed in the hands of downtrodden fools, would you not be supremely anxious of your fate? Rather than immediately presenting the abductees as sympathetic, Spielberg forces us to confront that inherent bias and feeling of alienation towards those different from us. Only then can the sense of empathy vital to the pursuit of justice for all truly be earned.

Does this look like a savage or a hero to you? Could you tell the difference? Is there one?

Although a slave revolt is the impetus of this story, the film Amistad is, at its heart, a courtroom drama. Since Cinque and his companions obviously can't speak for or defend themselves in a court of law, they require the help of the lawyer Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), funded by abolitionist Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård) and his associate Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman). The arc of Tappan eventually reveals him to be an opportunist more concerned with his Christian manifest destiny, symbolic victory and idea of freeing the African people rather than seeking justice for the lives of Cinque and the abductees in mortal danger. Baldwin goes from a somewhat sniveling property lawyer who initially fights the issue as a matter of ownership, to a person who comes to truly recognize and understand the humanity of Cinque and his companions. Although beset on all side by multiple parties laying claim to the abducted, along with a District Attorney out to hang them for murder and a judge selected for partiality, the unlikely defense team actually wins the federal district court hearing and are found to have acted legally in self-defense as free men. However, under severe international and political pressure, President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) appeals the decision, forcing it up to the Supreme Court. Enter the heavy hitter Anthony Hopkins as former President John Quincy Adams, the last hope of the captured Africans to win their freedom.

In all that build up, you see that the fate of the "feeble Africans" rest in the hands of old white men in top hats and muttonchops, and yet here, too, Spielberg puts a twist on the trope to make more incisive commentary. We come to find that the key point of Adams' masterful deliberation (displayed in the film as a moving eleven-minute speech, but reportedly hours of dissertation in the real life court room) is inspired by Cinque's own belief in his forefathers. Cinque believes that his plight is the culmination of all of his ancestors' struggles, and so they must answer his invocation of their spirits to help him in his hour of need. Adams makes a direct correlation between this belief and the duty of the people to enact the will of America's Founding Fathers to continue the struggle to establish freedom and justice for all (made doubly resonant as John Quincy bears the direct legacy of the honor and the office from his actual father, the 2nd President of the United States, John Adams). But more precisely, this is a direct confrontation on the hypocrisy inherent in the birth of our nation: how can we claim that "all men are created equal" while simultaneously living in a society founded on subjugation? As such, the machinations of these old white men are not meant to be seen as the divine inspiration of benevolent saviors, but the payment of a debt incurred from an original sin that must be payed in full. The absolution of this debt is not to be payed in grandiose sacrifice, but in the humility in recognizing our misplaced national pride and to continue to right the wrongs of those before us.

Spielberg tackles the brutality of slavery head on during the scenes portraying the dreaded Middle Passage journey of the slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean. We see the vicious assault of the initial kidnapping, the dehumanization of the African people as they are forced into cargo holds like cattle, the suffering of scourge and sickness, the ghastly sacrifice of people chained to stones and thrown overboard like garbage, the despair that drives a woman to kill herself and her newborn in a desperate escape from their torment, and of course the carnage of an abductee being lashed into a bloody pulp. Although Spielberg was generally known for his saccharine, kid-friendly sensibilities, he also has a firm grasp on the aesthetics of horror, as everything from Jaws to Poltergeist to even E.T. contain some truly bone-chilling imagery. At this point, he was also no stranger to graphic depictions of dehumanization, as there were plenty of swinging dicks, emaciated mammaries and systematic yet indiscriminate acts of violence throughout his 1993 masterpiece Schindler's List. However, whereas most other directors would be content to meet the qualifiers of the “slavery is bad” check-box with graphic violence and call it a day, Spielberg also has the awareness to highlight the psychological suffering at play; not just as a reaction to the physical violence, but as the traumatic stress reaction to the abomination that is the United States legal system.

Perhaps the most famous scene of the film is during one of the courtroom deliberations in which Cinque cries out “Give Us Free!!” backed by a swelling orchestra and to the stunned and inspired reactions of those in the courtroom. But it's important to remember that this outburst was not set up as a bombshell declaration on the witness stand as these events are usually constructed, but as a sudden breaking point under the conniving misdirection, mind-numbing minutiae and abject banality of what we call due process. Here we have the prosecution arguing over the particulars of cargo manifests when it's clear that the souls represented by those numbers in poundage were cruelly cast into the ocean void. Cinque and his comrades are constantly bewildered by the farce of the legal system, and Spielberg shows it nearly driving them to madness. Moreso than the sting of a whip, the sting of injustice lingers. This comes to a head once again when Baldwin relays to Cinque that the federal court ruling in their favor has been appealed and that they must argue their entire case once again. Having seen this on home release, I'm uncertain if Cinque's reaction to this news was translated with subtitles in the theatrical version. Nonetheless, the rage in his voice and body language is clear, confounded by a place which prides itself on the law of the land, yet a land where laws “almost” work. The echoes of this rage live on with us still, in a land where four officers of the law can beat a man nearly to death on camera yet walk away free. Where a man can stand his ground and kill a black teenager out of fear of his own safety, yet a black woman standing her ground from an abuser can be locked away. Can't you see: this is a land of confusion. The only thing more grotesque than the wholesale slaughter of humans are the the laws of a society which sanction it.

"What kind of a place is this where you almost mean what you say? Where laws almost work? How can you live like that?” We're still not quite sure; we wrestle with those questions to this very day.

This subject speaks to a long-standing issue I've had with portrayal of black people in film. I often get the feeling that in order to illicit a sense of empathy, filmmakers seem to think it must be mandatory for the black characters to go through incredible pain, suffering and humiliation. They gave Denzel an Oscar for being a whipping boy, and Lupita Nyong'o received hers in the same fashion (and Ejiofor was nominated similarly for his passion). I see it in Precious, Fruitvale Station, Django and The Green Mile. Of course, these stories are, for the most part, intended as tragedies, so suffering is part and parcel of the construction, just as much as it would be in any predominately white tragic drama. But even then, when triumph is shown alongside suffering, it feel like the fetish for black suffering must still be satiated. Even in the most recent box office hit Straight Outta Compton, the biopic about the legendary rap group N.W.A., many critics bemoaned the fact that the second half of the film “died off” when it focused on the interpersonal relationships and rise and fall of some of the members. Apparently they wanted to see Cube and Dre and them get roughed up by the Nazi Cops some more, to somehow add further vindication to the current sociopolitical climate with strong sentiments against police brutality. To me it's just a bunch of punk ass kids and slacktivists fetishizing police brutality, as they've never had to experience it in their real lives (much in the same way they romanticize the harsh realities spoken about in rap music). White people seem to think seeing black people getting pulverized is more dramatically resonant than a tale of brothers forging a bond, falling out and finding peace upon the tragic loss of one of their own. It seems to me that certain progressive white people have a hard on for niggers being brutalized almost as much as any Kard-Karrying Klan member or racist cop with an itchy trigger finger. Let's be clear about one thing: serious movies about Black people's struggles are not meant to be anyone's fucking torture porn. To me, Spielberg has a clear grasp of this, and though Amistad has its fair share of missteps and flaws, I feel he handles this particular aspect with aplomb, showing a true sense of empathy and compassion that seems completely foreign to the rest of Hollywood at large.

There are very few films that have ever moved me to tears, and two of those are thanks to Spielberg (the other being the famous 1985 feature The Color Purple; that in itself deserves an entire scholarly thesis, but that's for another day and perhaps another writer, as I probably should avoid becoming the token writer about Black Stuff, for my own emotional well-being if nothing else.) One of the most significant factors in my love for movies is how it allows me to inhabit another person's perspective and empathize in our commonalities while discovering and appreciating their unique experiences. I find it quite miraculous that an old Jewish man can so completely reach and understand what moves an angry black kid from the hood like myself, while at the same time taking me on wondrous journeys with everyone from a brave captive fighting for his freedom, to a weary soldier fighting to maintain his last shreds of humanity, to a young kid in a California suburb fighting the difficulties of his parents' divorce. Even when Spielberg isn't at the top of his game, his powerful sense of empathy always shines through, and to me, that's what makes him a true master of cinema.