Magazine article The Christian Century

Spielberg's Daring

Magazine article The Christian Century

Spielberg's Daring

Article excerpt

If President Clinton wonders why his national dialogue on race is going nowhere fast, he might consider the largely indifferent response from critics and the public to Steven Spielberg's film Amistad. Box office response was much weaker than anticipated, especially in comparison to Spielberg's earlier films. Most critics found Amistad too preachy. Armond White, writing in Film Comment (March-April), points out that Amistad's reception differs "markedly from the Schindler's List spectacle, where the entire apparatus of the American media--newspapers, magazines, TV shows, critics, politicians, editorial writers, educators--rose together ... in one loud hosanna."

White argues that Spielberg "works in a lost, grand tradition that assumes the ability to address pop audiences seriously." With Amistad, however, Spielberg "has chosen a story that end-of-century Americans refuse to understand." Depicting 19th-century slavery, White says, was even more daring than examining the Holocaust, an event about which there is little public disagreement.

The Holocaust occurred in Europe 50 years ago, and anti-Semitism, while still real in Western culture, is not as much in evidence as is the racism that continues as a legacy of slavery. As White puts it, "If Schindler's List benefited from current concern about what the Germans knew and the Poles knew, here's a case of Americans knowing and not caring." He adds, "Spielberg's virtuoso technique and intellectual daring are not only not appreciated on this subject, they may be unwanted. Race screws up Americans. Since it is so fundamental to the way we live, bringing up the subject spoils the illusion--the party--of most Hollywood movies."

What is particularly courageous about Spielberg's approach in Amistad is that he tells the story largely from the Africans' point of view, a reversal of the paternalism and sentimentality of most American films that deal with race. Amistad is not a film that encourages us to get along with one another. Instead, it depicts the continuation of racial tensions, which Spielberg refuses to resolve through a happy ending.

The film's central story, based on actual events of the 1830s, is about the quest for freedom by Africans who were captured and sent to Cuba to be sold into slavery. The film opens with an uprising on the ship (so harsh and bloody in its depiction that one country with a largely black population cut those scenes before allowing the film to be shown). The slave leader, Cinque (played by Djimon Hounsou), assumes command of the ship and instructs the two surviving crew members to take the prisoners back to Africa.

The crew sails the ship east by day, but by night they steer it northward. Eventually the ship is captured by the U.S. Navy off the coast of New England. By landing in Connecticut, a nonslave state, the 53 Africans become central figures in a complex legal conflict--involving the queen of Spain, a presidential election and growing hostilities between free and slave states--over whether they are to be regarded as slave or free.

The story of the ship's uprising and the trials of the Africans has been well known to black historians. It is also a familiar part of American church history. The white abolitionists who offered support to the Africans were members of an antislavery movement that eventually became part of what is today the United Church of Christ. But the story was unknown to most Americans, and Spielberg did not make it easy for white audiences by deciding to tell the story primarily from the perspective of the Africans. …

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