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Festivale online magazine, February, 1998

Movie still, Amistad, Festivale film reviews section; Amistad (c) DreamWorksAmistad

From the first lightning-filled moments of Amistad you know that the film makers know and love the language of their medium. In the dark bowels of a ship a man is but an animal grunting and crying as he picks away at his bonds with his bloody fingernails. Amid the clashing thunder, half-concealed by a storm, a bloody revolution takes place. It is, as we later see, outrage repaid with outrage, blood for blood, and pain for pain.

Spielberg with his cast on the set of Amistad (c) DreamWorks

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After Schindler's List, Spielberg has been trapped, once known for fluffy adventures and cardboard bad guys, he was elevated to meaningful, deep films. The history of humankind, fortunately for film makers, is filled with outrages that provide meat for serious story tellers. There is a kind of cyclic inevitability about his making a slavery-film. Slavery didn't begin or end with the African slaves in the United States, the legacy of slavery is still with us, in the 'whupping' punishment of children, and in the renaming of married women to show their change of ownership. Slavery, ownership, control, these are still issues that are with us today.

Amistad disappointed me because it had the feel of uniqueness, not universality. It seemed to be something of our past, over, surmounted, not part of the human condition, not something that spoke of human behaviours that have no place in a healthy, intelligent, fair and just society, not something still to be conquered.

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ex-president John Quincy Adams and Cinque share a moment in his greenhouse

The photography is richly done, the story emphasises the noble savage as a man, not an ideal, however I wonder if the film audiences are quite so dense as to need their "Christ allusions" so plainly laid out for them. And yes, this is an interesting experience, watching a Jewish film maker drawing a parallel between black men kidnapped as slaves and a Jew made famous as a Christian martyr.

The film makers claim that the incident threatened to bring the country closer to Civil War, and that didn't ring true. Sadly, film makers, unlike other story tellers are not required to give a bibliography, so we can't tell whether the major characters were, in real life, thinking that their actions could precipitate a war. The war was about the rights of individual states to self-determination, not about whether slavery was right or wrong. And somehow the mention of civil war watered down the issue of slavery.

Amistad is one of those films that teachers will take their charges to (well, maybe not, there is some nudity reminiscent of Jaws). It's a film that is supposed to be good for you. I wonder if it is nourishing, or just didactic.

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Festivale Online Magazine
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ISSN 1328-8008
Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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Filed: 6-Feb-1998 : Last updated: : Last tested: 3-Jul-2014: Last Compiled: 3-Jul-2014
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