Amistad (1997)

(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I’m late to Amistad, but watching it explains a lot of Steven Spielberg’s latter filmography, most obviously Lincoln. (Although I suspect that I’ll understand even more once I see The Color Purple). While I could blather on about Amistad’s excessive length and slow pacing, that would be missing the point of a film that dares to show how civilized arguments can make better humans out of everyone. This movie believes in the rule of law, but doesn’t shy away from showing distressing scenes of slavery and torture. (Amistad illuminates Lincoln’s distant treatment of slavery by the explanation that Spielberg already showed the worst in his earlier film, and wasn’t keen on graphically revisiting the issue.) It’s a period drama but a handsomely executed one, featuring actors that were either at the height of their powers (Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman) or on the verge of stardom (Matthew McConaughy, and Djimon Hounsou in a terrific performance). There are plenty of other things to like: Amistad lets subtitles play a role in the way viewers feel the story unfolding, credibly shines a light in pockets of American history that people would like to forget, ends on eloquence (albeit with an explosive coda) and appeals to our better natures. I wouldn’t necessarily call it gripping or essential, but it’s easily compelling and worthwhile … and has survived admirably well the almost-twenty years since its release.

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