'Amistad' founders on evasion of true evil

December 21, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

MUCH PRAISE has been heaped on "Amistad," Debbie Allen and Steven Spielberg's new film based on the true story of a revolt by African captives aboard a 19th-century slave ship.

But though the subject was compelling -- and the conditions aboard the slave ship chillingly rendered -- I felt oddly let down by the experience.

Perhaps it was the prerelease hype, which suggested that "Amistad" would do for slavery what Spielberg's earlier film, "Schindler's List," had done for the Holocaust.

Yet if one knew nothing else of American history, one might easily conclude that the events recounted in "Amistad" were merely the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding regarding immigration law.

Aha! -- these Africans began their journey in Sierre Leone rather than Cuba, thus we have no right to enslave, beat, torture, rape and kill them after all!

So, sorry folks, it's back to Africa with you -- and all's well that ends well.

By such devices, "Amistad" accomplishes its brief of dramatizing a long-overlooked episode in American history. It illustrates the late historian Benjamin Quarles' contention that, far from being passive victims, the Africans brought to these shores were active shapers of their own destiny.

On the other hand, to make that point, "Amistad" seems eager, even anxious to go out of its way to avoid the central horror of slavery.

Ironically, there is a comparable event in "Schindler's List" that illustrates precisely what is missing from "Amistad."

A trainload of Jews from Schindler's factory has arrived in Auschwitz. Only Schindler's last-minute intervention manages to convince the authorities that there has been a "mix-up" -- they have the "wrong" Jews.

So instead of being gassed, the prisoners are herded back onto the train and shuttled along to their next destination.

If that had been the central scene of "Schindler's List," no one ever would have taken the movie seriously as a description of the Holocaust.

On the contrary, the train episode only worked because viewers already had been shown in the most graphic terms the inhuman cruelty and barbarity of the camps. There was no doubting that the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews was rooted in something far more sinister than a bureaucratic "mix-up."

"Amistad" is set in 1839, but its ethos seems suspiciously like the politically correct 1990s.

We only meet the "good" white abolitionists who try to help the Africans; the "bad" slave traders and ship's crew are ludicrous stock figures -- comic, pathetic and apparently devoid of any real intent to do evil.

The Africans themselves are portrayed as noble savages, though they are neither particularly noble nor savage; they just happen to speak a different language, which makes them seem a bit out of it, like the Eddie Murphy character in "Coming to America."

I imagine what appealed to Allen and Spielberg about this story was its apparently redemptive conclusion, the idea that conscience and law could still vindicate the country's founding principles despite its tolerating the evil of slavery.

But the filmmakers protest too much. They are so preoccupied with their happy ending that whatever moral urgency the film might have had dissolves into bathos and self-congratulatory happy talk.

I think they would have done better to have based their movie on Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno," a fictional yarn inspired by an earlier slave uprising at sea.

In Melville's masterful tale, the Africans are both more cunning and more implacable than "Amistad's" noble savages, while the whites' complicity with evil is tempered by a recognition of their own capacity for self-delusion.

Melville's characters rise to tragedy because all of them are aware that they have been caught up in a great moral drama far beyond their poor powers to escape or control. They are vindicated by their surrender to fate.

Perhaps the most profound description of American slavery may be found in William Faulkner's masterpiece "Absalom, Absalom," an epic vision of racial and sexual conflict so terrifying that most Americans simply can not bear to contemplate it. It's the story of a 19th-century Mississippi patriarch whose dream of founding a plantation dynasty founders on his own racism.

Faulkner well knew the futility of trying to understand America's past as refracted through the rose-colored lenses of law and religion. For him, only the tortured dark night of the soul offered an arena expansive enough for such an undertaking.

"Amistad" is too small for its subject, too timid to confront the passion the memory of slavery still arouses in Americans of all races.

The filmmakers are right to insist that it is a story that must be told. But in "Amistad" they haven't told the half of it.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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