Year 7, Day 260 - 9/17/15 - Movie #2,152
BEFORE: I figured this was the best way to kick off the 9-day Matthew McConnaughey chain - not just because it's the oldest among the 9 films, but because Chiwetel Ejiofor carries over from "12 Years a Slave". Yep, 15 years before he became an overnight success of sorts for that Best Picture winner, he was in another slavery-related drama.
THE PLOT: About a 1839 mutiny aboard a slave ship that is traveling towards the northeastern coast of America. Much of the story involves a courtroom drama about the men who led the revolt.
AFTER: Here's a brief history of the United States, with regards to civil rights: "All men are created equal." Of course, they weren't back then, because women weren't men, and slaves were considered property, and you had to be a land-owner to vote in an election, so good luck with that whole pursuit of happiness thing. But then slowly, one by one, legal battles were fought to better define that "all men are created equal" idea. (Well, surely the founding fathers meant "men" in the humanity sense, not just male men, right? So after a long legal battle, women were considered created equal, too.) But, look, we've got a new country to run, so can we just get back to you on the whole slave thing? Say, in maybe four score and twenty?
Time and time again, we keep coming back to that "all men are created equal" thing. Women in the 1920's, civil rights in the 1960's, and today it's same-sex partnerships and people trying to say that it doesn't apply to the children of immigrants we don't like. What part of "all men are created equal" are we still having trouble with? Anyway, we're not saying the phrase entitles people to anything concrete, just the pursuit of happiness - there's no promise of actual happiness, you're just allowed to come to America and look for it. It's not "all men are created equal, except for Mexicans or Arabs or Chinese or Irish or gay people or left-handed Eskimos", now is it? (next, we'll try and argue over the word "created" - why isn't it "All men are inherently equal"? Why do we have to bring God into it?)
But that's the core legal argument seen in "Amistad", which rather ironically is the Spanish word for "friendship", and the name of a slave boat in this story. Geez, with friends like those... Whether these men who rose up against their oppressors and took over the ship had a right to do so, and whether the law considered them property, which would make them beholden to treaties and trade agreements, or men.
McConnaughey plays a young lawyer, one who approaches the case from a "slaves are property" angle, because he thinks he can win this on technicalities. But this method doesn't sit well with the abolitionists, who want to argue that the slaves are men, because in a big-picture, long-term sense this would serve their cause better, even if the Amistad slaves become martyrs. It takes the involvement of an ex-president, John Quincy Adams, who believes that cases are won by the best stories, and implores the abolitionists to tell the slaves' story of suffering, from a human interest angle rather than a dry, legal one.
And I'm going to rate this one a smidge higher than "12 Years a Slave" because while it registered the same message - of course, slavery is horrible for the slaves - it didn't wallow in it for the whole film. During the flashback sequence it made that point, then it moved on.
Also starring Matthew McConnaughey (last seen in "The Newton Boys"), Djimon Hounsou (last seen in "Guardians of the Galaxy"), Anthony Hopkins (last seen in "RED 2"), Morgan Freeman (last heard in "The Lego Movie"), Nigel Hawthorne (last seen in "Gandhi"), Pete Postlethwaite (last seen in "Aeon Flux"), Stellan Skarsgard (last seen in "Avengers: Age of Ultron"), David Paymer (last seen in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit"), Paul Guilfoyle (last seen in "Cadillac Man"), Allan Rich (last seen in "Disclosure"), Jeremy Northam, Xander Berkeley (last seen in "Transcendence"), Arliss Howard (last seen in "Tequila Sunrise"), Austin Pendleton (last seen in "Hello Again"), with cameos from Anna Paquin (last seen in "25th Hour"), Daniel von Bargen (last seen in "The Kid"), Pedro Armendariz, Jr., Kevin J. O'Connor, Jake Weber, Rusty Schwimmer, Peter Firth, Ralph Brown.
RATING: 6 out of 10 Mende numbers