[Screen It]


(1997) (Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins) (R)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Mild Extreme Heavy Heavy Heavy
Minor None Mild None Minor
Smoking Tense Family
Topics To
Talk About
*Moderate Mild Minor Moderate Extreme

Drama: A deadly rebellion on board a slave ship ignites a legal battle as to what should happen to the slaves after they've been captured and imprisoned.
In 1839, La Amistad, a slave ship carrying illegally obtained African slaves, sails from Cuba. After one of the men, Cinque (DJIMON HOUNSOU), manages to break free from his shackles, he and the other Africans attack and kill all but two of Spanish crew members. At sea for six weeks, the Amistad finally makes it to land, but unbeknownst to them, they've arrived on American soil. Captured and immediately imprisoned, their presence sets off a firestorm of controversy over who owns them, or whether they are free men.

Their story draws the attention of two abolitionists, former slave Theodore Joadson (MORGAN FREEMAN) and a local businessman, Tappan (STELLAN SKARSGARD). Unable to find a high profile lawyer to represent the men, they settle on property lawyer Roger Baldwin (MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY) who believes he can get the men off on a technicality. His opposition in the case includes Holabird (PETE POSTLETHWAITE), the prosecutor, and Secretary Forsyth (DAVID PAYMER) who uses his influence with President Martin Van Buren (NIGEL HAWTHORNE) to alter the proceedings in their favor.

Facing ever more trials, Baldwin's problems are compounded by the fact that neither he, nor the African men, can understand the other's language. Once they resolve this problem via an interpreter, Baldwin and Joadson then try to persuade former president and now Congressman John Quincy Adams (ANTHONY HOPKINS) to assist them. Although he initially turned down their request, he decides to join their team once he learns that Van Buren has sent the case to the Supreme Court. As Baldwin and his team prepare for the case, they come to better understand Cinque and his and the others' lives.

With a high-powered cast and Spielberg's named attached to this project, many teens may want to see it. Preteens, however, will have little or no interest in it.
For some scenes of strong brutal violence and some related nudity.
  • MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY plays an attorney who forsakes his practice to defend the men.
  • ANTHONY HOPKINS plays the former president who also represents the men and their plight.
  • DJIMON HOUNSOU plays an African man captured as a slave who escapes his imprisonment and leads a bloody rebellion.


    OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
    Director Steven Spielberg is undeniably one of the most popular and certainly the most commercially successful film maker of all time. With features such as "Jaws," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and the "Jurassic Park" films under his belt, Spielberg has had unequaled success, with his films raking in several billion dollars at the box office. Whenever his name is attached to any big budget film -- particularly during the summer season -- audiences assume they're in for a fun ride and rush to the theater.

    Yet his early attempts at making "serious" features often met with lukewarm success, both critically and commercially. "The Color Purple" was critically lauded, but of its many Oscar nominations, his wasn't one of the names included. Other films, such as "Empire of the Sun," were considered to be disappointments by many. While Spielberg was nominated for best director for his films "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T.," he never won and some believed him to be jinxed by his early, and in some eyes, jealously inducing success.

    The question that most likely haunted him for years was whether he could direct a film that would finally earn him the full respect of his peers, the critics, and audiences alike. Of course the film that did that for him was "Schindler's List," his moving 1993 epic. Sweeping the Oscars and finally winning him the big trophy, Spielberg's personal, emotional investment in the film paid off for him.

    With the Oscar monkey off his back, Spielberg was free to tackle any project he cared to direct. After delivering another "Jurassic Park" film that certainly didn't tax his creative skills, he decided to go serious again with "Amistad." Based on the true life events of a slave ship rebellion that became an early catalyst for the American Civil War, many questioned whether he could do for slavery what he did for the Holocaust. The results, in our opinion, are a mixed bag, but stem more from the limitations of the actual story than with Spielberg's handling of the material (although his obvious and occasionally manipulative efforts diffuse some of the film's momentum).

    Half courtroom drama and half character study, it's the legal stuff that lacks any real pizzazz. Aside from the stirring speech by Hopkins (playing former President John Quincy Adams) toward the end, the court scenes are mildly interesting, but certainly not invigorating. Audiences used to legal shenanigans and fireworks will find this material rather blase, which again can mostly be attributed to the real life incidents. Such proceedings, while obviously necessary for the plot, only make the film feel much longer than its nearly two and a half hour duration.

    Likewise, the slavery issue, while certainly tragic and inhumane, lacks the ghastly behavior that fueled "Schindler's List." In that film, Ralph Fiennes personified the impersonal horrors. In this film, such moments are anonymously brutal, but feel that they've been placed there just to prod our emotions. Yes, what happens is horrific, but the heavy-handed manipulation and the fact that we have seen the plight of slavery many times before, especially in the superb TV miniseries "Roots," diffuses the impact of these scenes.

    That problem is offset, however, by getting to know the characters personally, and the group- appointed leader, Cinque, becomes our focal point for their plight. It's his story (as reiterated by Hopkins' character) that's most important, and it's during those moments when we learn about his trials and tribulations that the story has resonance. Djimon Hounsou is quite impressive in this role, and easily stands out with one of the film's better performances.

    Hopkins is brilliant as usual, delivering an interesting take on the former president, but one only wishes he had more screen time with which to explore that character. Freeman, who almost always brings a reserved dignity to nearly any feature he's in, isn't given much to do other than be the token older black man the Africans can't quite figure out. McConaughey, despite his period muttonchops and appropriate apparel, never quite seems to fit into this period piece. While most everyone else feels like 19th century characters, McConaughey seems misplaced, as if transported there from a more modern time. He delivers an okay performance, but something about him just didn't feel right.

    Spielberg's direction and David Franzoni's screenplay are competent and offer some nice touches throughout the film. On the other hand, they're also occasionally guilt every so often of some heavy handed symbolism as briefly mentioned above. A scene where two Africans have figured out the Bible by its pictures is nicely done in a technical sense, but equating these men's lives to Jesus (rather blatantly done, we must add) doesn't ring true. It has too much of a twentieth century politically correct feel to it, although it does work somewhat on an emotional level. A few other scenes come across the same way, including one where Cinque, with the bright light (of justice) behind him says, "Give me free." Yes, it stirs ones emotions, but that's diffused by the way it's artificially forced on us.

    Likewise, Spielberg gives us a "Schindler's List" type of scene showing the massive dehumanization these people went through, where they're treated like farm animals and forced into one big squirming pile of indignity. That scene in particular, while horrible to watch, felt the most forced of any in the movie. It certainly reeks of attempting to manipulate the audience's emotions -- especially by having the innocent victims be nude (as in "Schindler's") to emphasize their vulnerability. None of that's helped by composer John Williams sweeping, but similarly manipulative score.

    Overall, the film works in an artistic sense -- the technical specs are good and the cast members all deliver decent performances -- but it never connects into your gut like "Schindler's List" did. It does have a few shining moments, as well as a handful of horrific ones, but it just never seemed to quite click for me. I wanted to be swept away by the experience, and while I can critically admire what was on the screen, it just seemed to keep me at a distance. Definitely too long at nearly two and a half hours, the film would have benefitted from some judicial editing. While everything about it is competent, this production just never quite takes off, either dramatically or emotionally. Some viewers will find it horrendous, but ultimately uplifting, while others will think it's above average, but certainly not great. We fall in with the later group and thus give "Amistad" a 7 out of 10.

    Dealing with slavery, this film offers several moments of graphic inhumanity that may disturb some viewers. The Africans are treated and fed like animals and forced into a large pile where many of them are nude. Consequently, there are brief glimpses of male full frontal nudity along with the same of female breasts. Several men are whipped until extremely bloody, while the initial slave rebellion on board the Amistad is also quite brutal and bloody. Another disturbing scene involves people being pulled one by one off the ship and into, and under, the sea where they drown. Beyond that, the film is pretty much a straight drama and thus doesn't have a great deal of other major objectionable material. Still, considering what's present, you should examine the content first to determine whether this film is appropriate for you or anyone in your family.

  • People drink wine on a ship that passes by the Amistad.
  • President Van Buren tells someone that he's trying to drink his brandy after a very long day.
  • Some people drink in a tavern.
  • People drink wine at a state dinner.
  • Forsyth and two other men drink some sort of liquor.
  • Cinque's fingers are bloody as he pries a nail loose from a slave ship's cargo hold.
  • During the rebellion onboard the Amistad many people are killed resulting in quite the blood bath. (We see a man impaled with an ax; another man's throat is slit; blood squirts onto the sails and spills onto the deck; Cinque drives a sword through a man whose wound is very bloody and blood spills from his mouth, etc...)
  • An African man is shot and blood pours from him.
  • We see several dead bodies being thrown overboard.
  • Several African's are whipped until they're extremely bloody and blood splatters onto other men.
  • Since this film deals with slavery, many characters are pro-slavery and thus treat the Africans as property and not people (We see them held and fed in the cargo hold like animals; some are whipped; others are dragged overboard to solve problems of overcrowding, etc...).
  • The prosecution in the case, using political pressure, causes the initial judge to be replaced and later causes Van Buren, who wants to be reelected, to override the court's later decision.
  • Scenes listed under "Violence" may also be tense to some viewers.
  • Obviously the way the African's are treated as slaves and then prisoners throughout the movie will be tense to some viewers.
  • During a raging thunderstorm at sea, Cinque and the other Africans break free from their shackles and attack the crew of the La Amistad. Many people are stabbed and shot and a great deal of bloodletting occurs.
  • The Africans are discovered on the Amistad and are captured by the Americans. One of them jumps from a row boat and is then pursued by another row boat with an armed soldier in the front.
  • We see a flashback of when Cinque was captured in a net and then hit several times before being sold into slavery.
  • A scene where we see the African's held in the ship's cargo hold where they're forced into a nude pile of humans and later are fed like animals will be tense to some viewers.
  • Likewise, a scene where two men are severely whipped will be unsettling to some viewers.
  • Another scene shows the crew's solution to overcrowding on the ship. They shackle many people to a heavy sack of stones that is then thrown overboard, dragging the people one by one to their watery deaths.
  • Swords/Knives/Pistols/Rifles/Whips: Used during various scenes to injure or kill people. See "Violence" for details.
  • Cannons: Fired at a slave fortress to destroy it.
  • Phrase: "Dung scrapper" (what the Africans call Baldwin, comparing him with someone in their village who actually does what that title describes).
  • None.
  • There is a mild amount of tension-filled music in several scenes.
  • None.
  • We heard one "hell" used as an exclamation.
  • We see brief glimpses of the African's bare butts in the outfits they wear, and somewhat longer views as they bathe.
  • We see brief glimpses of the African women's bare breasts.
  • As the Africans are thrown into the ship's hold, we see several glimpses of male full frontal nudity as well as that of women's breasts.
  • A few men smoke cigars here and there during the movie.
  • Adams smokes a cigar.
  • Baldwin smokes a pipe in several scenes.
  • The African's must deal with losing family members on board the slave ship (but there's not too much emphasis on that) and Cinque misses his wife.
  • The true life story of the Amistad incident and how accurately this movie portrays the events.
  • Slavery in general.
  • Since this is news at the time of this release, the court case involving an author suing Spielberg and his studio for allegedly "stealing" her story.
  • A man is hit in the back with an ax.
  • A man slits another man's throat.
  • Others are killed and blood squirts onto the sails and spills onto the wet deck.
  • An African is shot with a pistol. Another is shot with a rifle and then impaled with a bayonet.
  • Cinque stabs a man with a sword and drives it through him.
  • The crew from another ship fires several gunshots toward the Africans.
  • A guard closes a heavy metal door on an African's hand, crushing it, while another guard hits the man with his rifle butt.
  • While leaving the courthouse, a man runs up and hits Baldwin on the head and then disappears into the crowd.
  • Baldwin knocks items from a table in anger and then overturns the table when he gets bad news about the case.
  • We see a flashback of when Cinque was captured in a net and then hit several times before being sold into slavery.
  • An African man is shot and blood pours from him.
  • Several African's are whipped until they're extremely bloody.
  • We see people being pulled overboard and underwater where they drown.
  • People are shot during the liberation of the slave fortress (not graphic).
  • People are shot during the civil war and we see bodies on the ground (not graphic).
  • A ship's cannons fire at a slave fortress, blowing it up.

  • Reviewed December 8, 1997

    Other new and recent reviews include:

    [A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood] [Frozen 2] [Knives Out] [Queen & Slim] [21 Bridges]

    Privacy Statement and Terms of Use and Disclaimer
    By entering this site you acknowledge to having read and agreed to the above conditions.

    All Rights Reserved,
    ©1996-2019 Screen It, Inc.