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This article is the third part in my four-part series on the cinema of Steven Spielberg and his emotional and spiritual journey as a filmmaker, an American and a Jew. I call this the “journey of empathy” because Spielberg’s great gift as a filmmaker is to cause an audience to empathize with the characters in his films. Part I, in which I profiled Spielberg’s 1981 adventure romp Raiders of the Lost Ark, is here. In Part II, I examined the theme of empathy in Spielberg’s most highly-acclaimed film, the 1993 Holocaust epic Schindler’s List. As groundbreaking as Schindler was, and as important as it was for Spielberg’s personal confrontation with the Shoah (Holocaust), as a filmmaker he still had a distance to go. Spielberg is, of course, Jewish, and Schindler’s List was his attempt to make sense of the cataclysm that lies at the heart of modern Jewish history. His true transformation as a filmmaker, however, lay ahead of him: in gaining the ability to apply his gift of empathy to a story that was not intensely personal to him, as both Raiders and Schindler’s List were. He tried–and largely failed–to do this with two 1980s pictures, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. By 1997, however, his next attempt was much more successful. That was the film Amistad, often overlooked in Spielberg’s filmography, but it’s a very important milestone on his journey.

Amistad is based on a true story from American history. It begins aboard a ship, named the Amistad, transporting African slaves across the Atlantic in 1839. The slaves, led by Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), revolt and take over the ship, but, not knowing where they’re going, they are fooled by the Amistad‘s Spanish masters to land on the U.S. coast of New England. Although the state they’ve landed in is a free state, under American law the courts must respect the property rights of slave owners. Incarcerated in a New England jail, a legal battle breaks out over whether Cinque and his fellow Africans were kidnapped from Africa, in which case they should go free–since international slave trade has been outlawed–or whether they were born slaves on a plantation, in which case they can be returned to slavery. The case becomes a cause celebre among abolitionists including Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård), who hire a slick lawyer, Baldwin (Matthew McConnaghey) to prove the slaves deserve to be set free. As the case gets bigger Baldwin realizes he’s in over his head, and ultimately teams up with antislavery advocate and former U.S. President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), who brings their case to the Supreme Court despite being thwarted at every turn by the pro-slavery power structure.

You’d think a talky 19th century courtroom drama with a long running time (154 minutes) would bog down quickly, but Amistad works on most levels. The characters are engaging, and performances, especially Hopkins as Quincy Adams and Hounsou as Cinque, are quite powerful. Spielberg isn’t afraid to come to grips with the terrible legacies of American history and especially the failure of the Founding Fathers to deal with the issue of slavery. It’s also an extremely well-crafted glimpse at a time of American history that is seldom shown in films, and Spielberg was pretty courageous to take on the material in the first place. It’s an emotional film but it doesn’t feel manipulative the way The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun do. Both of those films display a reluctance to engage fully with the implications of the subject. Amistad doesn’t. Clearly Spielberg had matured.

At the very center of the film, however, is a sequence that finally shows us Spielberg’s gift in a new and impressive light. Cinque narrates to Baldwin what happened to him and the other slaves in their journey from West Africa to the time they took over the Amistad. What follows is a flashback sequence that shows the audience the true horror of slave-trading, raw and uncompromising: men and women being bagged and captured by slave traders, often with the help of native Africans from rival tribes; the horrifying conditions in the hold of slave ships, where neglect, disease and starvation rations take a terrible toll; and the chilling practice of slave traders “lightening” the cargo of their ships, which means chaining live human beings together and throwing them overboard. The rawness and moral devastation of this scene is every bit as vivid and affecting as any of the Holocaust sequences in Schindler’s List. We, the audience, feel like we’re being chained naked at the ankle and pitched brutally into the sea along with scores of others. The first time I saw Amistad in the theater in 1997 I remember the audience weeping openly in this sequence, and one woman ran out of the theater. Even Roots, the most popular cultural depiction of slavery up until that time, could never show us quite what Amistad does.

The horrifying “Middle Passage” sequence from Amistad is one of the most gripping depictions of slavery ever put on film. WARNING: NSFW, and very disturbing!

The key fact, of course, is that Spielberg is not African-American, and the injustice at the heart of Amistad–slavery–happened not to him, his family or his people, but to someone else. Amistad represents Spielberg finally using his gift of empathy to examine something outside of his own personal experience and cultural background. Raiders of the Lost Ark was motivated by Spielberg’s love and nostalgia for the cultural milieu of his childhood. Schindler’s List was an attempt to connect himself to the broader story and experience of the Jewish people. But in Amistad he was finally able to take his own experiences and analogize to others–essentially to bridge the gap of experiences by finding emotional and narrative commonalities between slavery and the Holocaust. It’s clear that Spielberg could not have known how to make Amistad without having made Schindler’s List first. It’s the first and clearest example in his career of a formerly inward-looking filmmaker finally mastering the world outside himself.

Important as it is, Amistad isn’t perfect. It’s not nearly as good a film as Schindler’s List, and even as history it’s more of an approximation than a faithful depiction. The legal aspects are especially inaccurate, but one can’t fault that, as watching a realistic movie about the legal process (especially in the 19th century) would be about as exciting as watching paint dry. Financially it was only a modest success and it remains one of the lesser-remembered pictures in Spielberg’s career. Nevertheless, I think the mark it left on Spielberg’s career is a crucial one. And admit it, how many times do you get to see John Quincy Adams portrayed in a movie?

In Amistad, Anthony Hopkins brilliantly portrays former President John Quincy Adams, who really did argue in favor of the Amistad Africans before the Supreme Court in 1840.

In the next and final installment, we’ll see the endpoint of Spielberg’s journey of empathy: Lincoln.

The header image incorporates a photo of Steven Spielberg by Romain DuBois and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The other element of the header image is a photograph by me; the artwork for Amistad is copyright (C) 1997 by Dreamworks Pictures and fair use is claimed.