Spielberg: Amistad part 1

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WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Cinque, the protagonist of Amistad, has a desire as basic as it gets: he’s been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and he would prefer that not be the case. Because this is a Spielberg movie, Cinque’s desire is expressed as a single-minded desire to get back to Africa and see his family again.

Because of a number of narrative choices Spielberg has made, some of them stemming from the nature of the story itself, Cinque is rendered into passivity, even paralysis — he’s held prisoner throughout most of the narrative, in chains most of the time he’s imprisoned. He cannot speak for himself due to a severe language barrier. Spielberg knows that a passive protagonist makes for a weak narrative, so he assigns a kind of tag-team of minor protagonists who undertake the job of fighting on Cinque’s behalf. A number of these minor protagonists are assigned significant screentime, and some of them are interesting, but their stories are all in support of the story of the primary, paralyzed protagonist. This is a bold, risky choice to make, and a brand-new strategy for Spielberg. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. When Amistad connects, it is always with scenes involving primary protagonist Cinque and his personal struggle for freedom. When it bogs down and gets diffuse, it’s when it’s focusing on its minor protagonists.

The structure of Amistad goes like this:

ACT I (0:00-28:00) Cinque and his fellow slaves break free of their bonds and take over the Amistad, the in which ship they’re being transported. They kill most of the crew and try to sail the ship to Africa. They wind up, instead, in New Haven. This causes an international incident and a court case with multiple suits ensues, with many different parties asserting a claim to the ship and its cargo: the Queen of Spain, an English salvage crew, and the surviving crew members all believe they have right of ownership. An abolitionist group, led by a fellow named Tappan, wants to see Cinque and his mates used as an example of the immorality of slavery. A lowly property-rights lawyer named Baldwin offers his services to Tappan and is rebuffed.

ACT II (28:00-1:00:00) Tappan and Theodore Joadson, a freed slave who works with him, go to Washington to see ex-president John Quincy Adams, who is in his declining years. Tappan and Joadson ask Adams to take up Cinque’s cause and he refuses. Tappan and Joadson, out of options, go back to Baldwin, who suggests that the case cannot be one as a moral crusade, but has a strong basis as a straight property dispute. Baldwin tries to find out where exactly Cinque and his fellows are from and gets nowhere fast. After a little detective work, Baldwin and Joadson find that while the Amistad is a ship from Cuba, Cinque and the others are from Africa, transferred after a sale from a illegal slave-trade ship. It seems like the case is all wrapped up when president Martin Van Buren, under pressure from southern forces, replaces the court’s judge with his own hand-picked choice.

ACT III (1:00:00-1:34:00) Joadson goes to ask Adams for help again, and Adams again refuses, but gives him some advice anyway — to find out Cinque’s story and present that to the court. Baldwin and Joadson locate a black sailor who speaks Cinque’s language and learns his story. We learn that Cinque was the village hero, who killed a lion single-handedly. The centerpiece of the movie is a fifteen-minute setpiece illustrating Cinque’s journey from contented village hero in Africa to wild-eyed mutineer in New Haven. This story is recounted to the court with its new judge, at the end of which Cinque stands up and says, in halting English, “Give us free!”

ACT IV (1:34:00-2:00:00) With their judge seemingly disposed against them, Cinque and his fellows start to give up hope. His best friend becomes a Christian, and Tappan admits that Cinque might be better for the cause of Abolition if he’s killed. Then, surprisingly, the new judge finds for Cinque and there is much rejoicing. Ordinarily, this would be an act break all in itself, but there is more story to be told: Van Buren is, again, pressured by the South to get the desired result, and Van Buren has the court’s verdict appealed to the Supreme Court. Cinque is enraged, wants to know what kind of place America is, where ideals are espoused but not practiced. Baldwin appeals to Adams again, and this time he takes the case.

ACT V: Cinque and Adams prepare their case for the Supreme Court. Adams, who has lived all his life in his father’s famous shadow, sees the case as a chance to make his own mark on American history. Adams delivers a long speech to the Supreme Court, the court, against long odss, agrees with him, and Cinque and his fellows go free and venture back to Africa. In case the movie had not been heavy enough, subtitles inform us that Cinque returned to his village to find that, in his absence, his family had been sold into slavery.

There is a lot of excellent filmmaking in Amistad, and yet there’s also something oddly stodgy and club-footed about it, and I keep coming back to this central problem of its paralyzed protagonist and its tag-team structure. Every time Cinque is allowed to speak for himself the movie comes alive, but when the movie stops to examine the central issue from other points of view it gets subdued and sancitmonious. It almost seems as though Spielberg, who triumphed so brilliantly with his Holocaust movie, felt a need to treat his Slavery movie with kid gloves. Wartime Poland in Schindler is a lively, complicated place with good people in all camps and a lot of moral ambiguity. The bad guys in Amistad are bad, bad, bad, sneering racists and glowering autocrats, childish leaders and gimlet-eyed power seekers. Joadson is an interesting character, but he’s also a passive protagonist, he’s either tagging along with Tappan, or tagging along with Baldwin or getting told off by Adams. Baldwin is an interesting character and the most Spielbergian of the bunch, a real “stand-it-on-its-head” kind of character, a pragmatist in a story of ideals, but his story conks out at the end of the end of Act IV. Adams is an interesting character but he’s used as some kind of secret weapon: “If only we could get John Quincy Adams to try this case, by god, we couldn’t lose!” From the moment he takes the case we know the outcome is in the bag, and the climax of the movie drags as a result.

And yet, I can see the rationale for the decisions made. Spielberg figured out that the way to make a Holocaust movie is to make it not about the Suffering Jews but about a guy who wants to open an enamelware factory. In Amistad he makes his protagonist a Suffering Slave and then he’s got nowhere to go; it’s endemic to the character’s situation that he’s unable to act. It’s as though he’d made Schindler’s List from Good Jew Stern’s point of view.

That’s enough for now, tomorrow I’ll go through the narrative in detail and sort out some of these issues.


17 Responses to “Spielberg: Amistad part 1”
  1. swan_tower says:

    Your comment about passivity reminds me of a problem I had with Blood Diamond. Structurally speaking, Djimon Hounsou’s character (did I spell his name right?) was the center of that film; it began and ended with him, and his conflict was what set the story in motion. But when you actually look at the story, the guy doing all the protagging, all the active contribution to the movement of the plot, was Leonardo diCaprio’s character. Hounsou was kind of along for the ride, providing the heart but none of the action.

    I noticed this when I realized I defaulted to assuming diCaprio was the main character, questioned whether that was a racially-driven assumption, and then started seeing how the film’s structure created that contradiction. It’s a disappointing flaw in an otherwise strong movie.

    • Todd says:

      This, of course, keeps coming up in movies with a racial aspect — filmmakers keep making movies where the “real struggle” is with the white people who are working on the behalf of the black people, not the black people themselves. The reason for this, as you might guess, is financial: you need $100 million to make Blood Diamond, and the studio won’t spend that kind of money on a movie starring Djimon Hounsou, so you’ve got to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as well, but he won’t take the part unless he’s the protagonist, and on and on.

      • stormwyvern says:

        “Movies”? Heck, we’ve been dealing with this problem since “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (though not for the same reasons, as Mr. DiCaprio wasn’t a factor until a century or so later.)

      • swan_tower says:

        I’m not quite that cynical about it, maybe because (as with Amistad) it felt like a situational problem as well as a marketing one. I think they meant for Hounsou to be the protagonist — they set it up that way — but he’s so disadvantaged in his circumstances that it’s hard for him to be proactive. Which is not to say I don’t think it would be possible for him to protag more; he certainly could, and I wish he had. But I think the passivity of his situation was also part of the problem, and one they failed to overcome.

        • Todd says:

          Well, let’s say the movie had stayed with Cinque for the entire story, and the movie was all about this man in a desperately alien situation, how he figured out who was who, who was working with him and who was working against him and how he managed to use his allies, whose motives he barely understands, to get his message to the Supreme Court. That totally works for me, but it makes the narrative even more internal and confined than it is already, plus it presents all kinds of problems with a protagonist who does not speak English and a bunch of antagonists who do. (I was just thinking yesterday of how effective the movie would be if they did it with Cinque and his mates all speaking perfect English, and the white New Englanders all barking in a weird, unknown tongue — it would have been a stylistic coup, but an even more uncommercial proposition.)

          The more I think about it, the problem is that Spielberg looked and looked for that magic “way into” the narrative, and thought he had it with the tag-team protagonist idea, but didn’t quite land it.

          • Anonymous says:

            I’ve been trying to think of another movie in which the protagonist is similarly hamstrung — both physically and linguistically. The closest I’ve come is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Any others come to mind?

            Your idea of having Cinque speak perfect English and the Americans be completely incomprehensible puts the audience in his position (trapped among people he can’t understand). It’s a cool solution to one structural problem. But, commercial prospects aside, I’m not sure Spielberg would have been willing to forgo the political context that the Washington scenes provide. I get the sense that he didn’t want the audience to think this was merely the story of one man’s struggle for freedom, even though that story would perhaps have made his point more eloquently.


          • swan_tower says:

            I would adore a movie like that, but my tolerance for foreign-language hijinks is better than most. (For all my problems with Mel Gibson — and they are legion — I love the fact that he filmed The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto in Latin, Aramaic, and Yucatec.)

  2. Anonymous says:

    The one thing I loved about Amistad were the scenes between Cinque and Baldwin where they learn to communicate with one another. For some reason, watching two very different people learn to find common ground like that was really compelling to me, and I still consider it the most dramatically successful aspect of the movie.

    — N.A.

  3. teamwak says:

    I did find it a bit hit and miss sometimes. I felt the scenes where Matthew and Djimon were trying to communicate were being hammered at us byt the usually subtle Mr Speilberg.

    But some parts like the actual journey on the ship are harrowing and heartbreaking. The scene about how the slave ships “lost weight” is something I have enevr forgotten seeing.

    A little preachy, but still a cut above. Didnt Oprah go mad for it (and Djimon? lol) if I remember?

  4. stormwyvern says:

    I recall the buzz around the film prior to its release: that it was going to be Spielberg’s next big serious movie and that Cinque would soon be as much of a household name as Schindler. And then it came out and it didn’t exactly end up setting the world on fire. I never actually saw the film, but I sort of wondered if it was just unable to escape the shadow of Schindler or if audiences in the US were less willing to watch a movie about a historical atrocity that hit a little closer to home. But from what you’ve said, there are story issues that probably contributed to the film being less successful than Schindler’s List as well.

    From the way you describe it, the movie sounds like a pattern of triumph, then setback (or maybe the other way around) repeated several times. Cinque and his fellow Africans, against all odds, capture the Amistad, but suffer a setback as they fail to reach Africa and end up the subject of a legal case. Against all odds, Cinque and his legal team manage to convince a judge brought in specifically to be biased against their case to rule in their favor, but suffer a setback as the case is brought before the Supreme Court, where, against all odds, they win their case again. I’m sure it plays out with a little more suspense and drama in the film itself, but from the synopsis, I wonder if audiences may have found the ability of Cinque and his co-protagonists to triumph over seemingly impossible adversity a little much to believe, even if it is a true story.

    The thing that I’m really wondering about is the ending. You mention subtitles, so I’m a little confused as to whether this devastating news is related to the audience in text only or we actually see Cinque returning home to find his family gone and the subtitles are just translations of what he and the other characters are saying. Either way, it seems to imply that the end point of the film is that Cinque manages to win a few battles, but ultimately lost the war. To be fair, I’m not sure how you could make a more emotionally satisfying ending and remain true to these sad facts and I could well just be misunderstanding what the end of the film really is. I’ll be curious to hear you comments on how the story comes to an end, either here or as you go into your in depth analasys.

    • mimitabu says:

      unfortunately, the way you describe it is pretty accurate. the story of the movie feels like an exercise… the triumph/setback/triumph is so immediately familiar that there’s no tension, like watching a very formulaic sitcom.

      there are definitely compelling scenes though. it’s not a terrible movie by any stretch, but the robotic way the plot goes pushes me out of it. i think if you can accept the bad format (especially the “secret weapon” aspect), you can appreciate the rest of it without being bored.

      i’d say it’s worth watching, personally. all script/direction/overall structure analysis aside, it’s good to tell realistic(ish) stories about slavery in movies. educating people about the raw facts only goes so far, so i think a movie like amistad can serve a real political/educational purpose. cinque is a compelling character too, despite the passive protagonist stuff.

      • Todd says:

        It’s certainly worth watching, and from what I understand it sticks pretty close to the facts of the case — which may have been another story factor against it; because so many different people were involved in saving Cinque, it makes it feel like it’s the White Liberal Establishment who’s the protagonist, not the guy who actually led the mutiny and freed himself.

    • sheherazahde says:

      “if audiences in the US were less willing to watch a movie about a historical atrocity that hit a little closer to home.”


      I think Todd’s idea would have worked better, even the part with having the English speakers incomprehensible to the audience. (Hey, audiences sat through “The Passion of The Christ”).

      “the movie had stayed with Cinque for the entire story, and the movie was all about this man in a desperately alien situation, how he figured out who was who, who was working with him and who was working against him and how he managed to use his allies, whose motives he barely understands, to get his message to the Supreme Court.”

  5. curt_holman says:

    Do you think it would have made a difference if the film’s most active secondary protagonist, Tappan, had been played by someone other than Matthew McConaughey?

    • Todd says:

      McConaughey plays property-rights lawyer Baldwin, Tappan is played by Stellen Skaarsgard. But I think I understand your question.

      I don’t think McConaughey is particularly well cast in this movie, but in my experience poor casting choices should not hinder a well-turned screenplay. I could think of any number of movies where a star is poorly cast, but the movie still works because of its excellent screenplay. But the list of memorable movies with well-cast stars that work in spite of its poor screenplay is much shorter.

      Take Labyrinth for example — David Bowie is perfect casting as the Goblin King, but the script fails to give him anything to do and the movie suffers for it.