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Steven Spielberg's Amistad — based on a true story of Africans who murder their Spanish slave-trading captors and wind up on the coast of Massachusetts in 1839 — is a film with great promise and noble intentions, but very little effect. Debbie Allen, who served as co-producer on Amistad, had been lobbying for years to get the film made, and said that she approached Spielberg after seeing Schindler's List, believing that he could make an equally powerful film about slavery. Unfortunately, Spielberg seems to have used E.T. as the inspiration for this film instead, as he willingly eschews everything that was complex about race, slavery, and law in the rapidly changing political climate of 19th century America, and instead delivers a saccharine story of Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), the African stranger in a strange land who only wants to go home (or would that be "phone home"?). In almost every instance, two-dimensional characters are used to illustrate multi-dimensional conflicts: Stellan Skarsgard, as the abolitionist Tappan, is little more than a shrill zealot; Morgan Freeman, as his abolitionist comrade Joadson, might as well be part of the scenery; Matthew McConaughey, as the pragmatic lawyer Baldwin, is intriguing at first, but even he comes under the spell of Cinque, and his legal maneuverings are soon abandoned. Politicians, slave traders, and prosecutors are cast wholesale in a mold of intransigent evil, and the brilliant Anthony Hopkins, as former president John Quincy Adams, is forced to deliver a ten-minute legal summation at the end of the film that results in the astonishing revelation that — get this — slavery is immoral. Amistad gets high marks with its attention to historical details, and Hounsou has a powerful screen presence, but Spielberg's simple, sentimental instincts eventually derail what should have been an involved account of this landmark court case, which pitted two American presidents against each other and arrived between the two wars that defined our nation. Also starring Nigel Hawthorne, Pete Postlethwaite, and Anna Paquin. Excellent transfer, DD 5.1, 30-minute "making-of" documentary, trailer, textual supplements.

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