Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Super Delegates: John Quincy Adams in "Amistad" (1997)

Anthony Hopkins in Amistad
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Release Date: December 25, 1997
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: David Franzoni
Starring: Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins
Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Costume Design
-Best Original Score (Drama)
Delegates in Question:
-Anthony Hopkins
-Martin Van Buren

America's history is ripe with racial politics. One can find it in literature such as Harriett Beacher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" where slaves were depicted in more sympathetic light while receiving scarring punishment by less than likable whites. It is a story that continues to serve as a strong basis for cinema's period pieces - including recent Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave and this Fall's Oscar contender The Birth of a Nation. To say that society is a little obsessed with constantly talking about racial history would be an understatement. It has never gone away, only choosing to mold into something far more personal and uncomfortable, depending on your stance. Still, slavery has been a prominent subject in movie history, and there are few that have explored it in blockbuster cinema with as much empathetic regard as that of director Steven Spielberg.

Amistad is one of the forgotten Spielberg films, especially for his almost entirely flawless iconic work from the 90's. The reviews would even back this up, choosing neither to call it bad nor a masterpiece on par with his other sympathetic epics like The Color Purple or Schindler's List. While the former showed the director making one of the few mainstream movies about blacks to not feature slavery as a main theme, it does seem like he's found fascination in exploring why we as a society are drawn to that type of story in the first place. Could it be the overcoming terrible pains while exploiting the darkest side of humanity? It is easy to see that in almost every film depicting racial tension. However, Spielberg's first attempt at exploring American history's monumental moments in race relations actually has a bit more of the old familiar heart on its sleeve. It cares not for violence, choosing instead to explore the people oppressed.

Amistad begins as a story in which Africans overtake a slave ship in violent fashion. Leaving only a few alive, they are deceptively taken to America and held hostage. President Martin Van Buren believes that they are the property of Queen Isabella II of Spain and should be given over as such. Yet Roger Sherman Baldwin chooses to argue against this by suggesting that they are free men that should be allowed to return to their homeland. With help from former President John Quincy Adams, the trial gets underway. The initial hurdle is in being able to communicate with the slaves, specifically Joseph Cinque, to better understand their story. With the help of a translator and a slow progression of trust, they discover the brutal story of which lead to that famous mutiny.

While most films would shy away from showing grandiose acts of despair, Spielberg manages to create it into an art. It's not done in an exploitative way, but helps to ratchet up the emotional understanding of torture as several slaves are dumped into the ocean and left for dead. The rest may have a familiar vibe of good overcoming evil, but the slow build to understanding others' pain is a key factor in the film and helps to lead up to Adams' movie-defining speech. He is passionately trying to escape the shadows of his father John Adams while being somewhat of an old and aloof man. With Van Buren running for reelection, it becomes a case of determining whether or not the men captured are property or free men. By the end, justice prevails and the film ends with a triumphant destruction of the slavery system, leaving Queen Isabella II of Spain in a tizzy that she didn't get what she wanted. Van Buren's second term inevitably didn't happen. William Henry Harrison would beat him.

As one can guess by Amistad's obscure legacy, it isn't the definitive depiction of overcoming racial tensions. To some extent, the film is more of a prestige drama wanting to be important than it is in doing so. It covers an important theme and Anthony Hopkins' portrayal helped to mark him as the only actor to receive two Oscar nominations for playing presidents (the other being Richard Nixon in Nixon). Of course, Adams was a character who overcame a lot of adversity both in legacy and in the legal sense. John Quincy Adams was always going to be in the shadow of his father, and the film makes great allusions to this. However, he was also needing to prove to himself that he was capable of making a change in society. The choice to defend the men aboard the Amistad may in fact be more remembered than anything that he had done in office. At least, that is based on Amistad being the only major film depicting Adams. The only other account comes in HBO's miniseries John Adams, which depicts him more as a young man entering politics.

While not nearly as bad as in 1839, racial politics still remain a pretty rampant issue in America. In recent years, there have been many cases of blacks being shot by police officers; including Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and the Ferguson riots. The big difference is that there has been more of an attempt to get activism and awareness out there. This is best summarized in the "Black Lives Matter" movement, which was created to make notice of blacks that are still oppressed to some extent socially. There's also various cases regarding profiling and stereotypes that are thankfully disappearing still feel prevalent due to these murders and the sometimes unexplained motives behind their deaths. It could also be that phone cameras and news broadcasts make the awareness of these events more often. While the world is safer, it definitely is hard to believe so when groups like Black Lives Matter have more than enough reason to exist. 

While the film specifically explores Africans and the slave movement, one can easily apply this to how society sees immigrants in general. This is no more present than in Republican candidate Donald Trump's campaign for president. Among his goals is to build a wall blocking Mexicans from illegally entering the country. He also wants to ban Muslims from entering the country - believing that to some extent it would lead to the rise of terrorism. Among his wilder accusations is that Mexicans are "drug dealers and rapists." Considering that Van Buren was running a reelection campaign that involved seeing the Africans as slaves, it's easy to make parallels that are only disheartening when you understand that culturally society has evolved beyond the slavery mentality to a large extent in the 177 years since Amistad. Still, there's a subgroup that has a very closeted view on the world that shows a certain hostility for races other than white.

The major difference is that society tries to fight the oppressive factor, and does so more successfully nowadays. Even if Amistad is far from the first film to sympathize the men behind slavery, it definitely feels like an epic meant to help us understand why that is. Spielberg would again explore the slave debate in 2012's Lincoln with I feel more clarity and focus. However, one of his first mature films on the subject managed to create a powerful vision of what going against the grain and righting wrongs could do. It may suffer from being in part a court procedural. However, it doesn't matter largely because of how assured the film ends up being. While it does wonders to make the slave story more lively, it also shows how being an activist for good can inevitably help to reshape your legacy, as is the case with Adams. 

Is Amistad the best movie that Spielberg has ever released? No. However, it does show the empathy that he would become known for as he skewered into more dramatic territory. While it doesn't hit the resonant peaks of Schindler's List, it definitely packs itself full of images and moments that suggest something more personal and daring. He wants to believe that the world is a better place and tells these stories so that we remember why that is. He continues to do so even in 2015's Bridge of Spies. It may be his lasting trait. However, it does seem like it has helped in some way, as society as a whole has tried to be more helpful to each other, and the general attitude towards race relations has only improved. It still has a ways to go, and Amistad never suggests that it cured the problem, but at least progress has been made. Sometimes that's what matters most.

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