Impassioned in its viewpoint and clinical in its execution, Amistad exists in large part to shed light on a heretofore little-known incident from American history.

In 1839 -- 31 years after the importation of slaves was outlawed in the still-new United States of America and eight years after Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in Virginia -- a ship called La Amistad ("friendship") sailed from Cuba with 53 West African men, women and children destined for slavery. En route, the Africans overtook their captors, killing all but two, who were supposed to sail the small vessel to Africa. Instead, the two took the Amistad north, along the Eastern seaboard, until the ship was intercepted near Connecticut by an American naval vessel and the Africans were jailed.

The Amistad incident quickly became a high-profile legal case, a cause célèbre for abolitionists and a diplomatic headache for a president in the midst of a re-election campaign. While the film tries to put all the legal wrangling in context, director Steven Spielberg is obviously drawn to the dramatic subject matter of slavery, with its clear lines of moral demarcation, instead of the murky world of political maneuvering and compromise.

In one extended sequence that's brutal and disturbing -- yet somehow impersonal -- Spielberg envisions the slave trade through the capture and transportation of Sengbe Pieh (Djimon Hounsou), who's dubbed Cinque by the Spanish-speaking Amistad crew.

As harrowing as some scenes are, Spielberg never manages to get beyond the surface to the heart of the matter. The viewers remain voyeurs and not emotional participants. Throughout Amistad, characters are drawn in black and white (no one feels real), yet the all-important issue of race is politely skirted.

What did society really think of freed former slaves like Morgan Freeman's abolitionist printer? David Franzoni's script makes a few grand statements linking the 1841 Amistad Supreme Court decision directly to the Civil War, but doesn't effectively evoke what it meant to be black in this particular time and place.

Spielberg tries to make Amistad into a heroic saga about freedom taken, but the bulk of the film shows it to be a case of freedom granted through the courts. Even a filmmaker as skilled as Spielberg can't make courtroom scene after courtroom scene anything but taxing. Formal, and even rigid at times, Amistad then becomes inexplicably chummy when it comes to portraying Cinque's relationship with his legal advocates: ambitious property lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) and former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). Overall, Spielberg makes some heavy-handed choices (Spain's Queen Isabella II as a petulant child instead of a mini-monarch) and some inexplicable ones (the Mende-speaking Africans are only subtitled sometimes), but he doesn't examine a central paradox of Amistad as anything more than legal strategy: that a black person from Africa was born with basic human rights, but a black person born in America was not. As much as Amistad tries to be triumphant, the film is shackled by Steven Spielberg's fanatical carefulness, a peculiarly Hollywood combination of political correctness and noblesse oblige.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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