BORN WITH OUR eyes on the future, we Americans are notoriously oblivious to history--our own or anyone else's. Unless we are personally involved, our attitude goes, it's nothing to get worked up about. Did anyone, other than a few spoilsport movie critics, take umbrage when the new animated film ""Anastasia'' claimed that Rasputin's curse caused the Russian Revolution?
History to us is a wallflower. She sits neglected in the corner, drab and demure, uninvited to the dance. What does it take to get us to notice her? A suitor, of course. The most popular boy in the class, say, who suddenly sees her there and proclaims her beautiful. Someone like . . . Steven Spielberg.
Having unleashed his prodigious talent upon the Holocaust in ""Schindler's List,'' Spielberg now casts his eyes on an extraordinary event that neither he, nor most of us, was ever taught in school. In 1839, aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, 53 Africans rose in mutiny, slaughtering all but two of their captors. They were imprisoned in New Haven, Conn., for their deed, and their case was ultimately argued before the Supreme Court by former president John Quincy Adams.
But not everybody is happy that Spielberg has asked this girl to dance. This is a piece of history--of African-American history--in which many people do feel personally involved. On the eve of next week's open-ing of this $35 million production, Spiel-berg and his studio, DreamWorks SKG, find themselves embroiled in controversy and territorial disputes. There's novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud's $10 million lawsuit claiming that the film steals significant elements of its story from her 1989 novel ""Echo of Lions.'' (In retaliation, DreamWorks now says she ripped off ""Black Mutiny,'' the 1953 history used as a source for ""Amistad.'') There's the internal dispute over screenwriting credit: David Franzoni was awarded sole credit by the Writers Guild even though Spielberg believed it should have been shared with Steve (""Schindler's List'') Zaillian.
Within the black intellectual community, there is heated debate about the appropriateness of a white director's present-ing African-American history. Says author Haki Madubuti, owner of the Third World Press publishing house, ""We have to be in control of our own stories--just like our destinies. I'm not saying that Spielberg isn't capable of making a decent film about blacks. What I'm saying is that blacks should be given first chance at our own stories.'' (For a stunning film about slavery by a black director, rent Charles Burnett's 1996 ""Nightjohn,'' originally made for television.)
Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson disagrees. ""What's important is that it's finally getting made--no matter who made it and as long as it's quality work.'' Producer Debbie Allen, the choreographer and actress who's been trying to get this story on film since 1982, thinks ""Steven was the right person to do this film, and I knew it.'' Indeed, many black directors--like Spike Lee and John Singleton--knew of the story but believed they could never get financing. And as Spielberg points out, ""This story is about American history, not just African history.''
As the lone African-American at the forefront of the film, Allen assumed the role of guardian of black culture--making sure the tribal dialects and traditions were true to history, seeing that scenes with the African prisoners were restored when it seemed the movie was becoming too much about the white people who fought for their freedom in court. The filming of the Middle Passage sequences, in which the actors playing the slaves had to be shackled, stripped and beaten, was a powerful and agonizing experience that called for special sensitivity. Only black crew members were allowed to put the chains and shackles on the actors. ""It took amazing stamina to film those scenes,'' recalls Djimon Hounsou, the 33-year-old West African actor who plays Cinque, the leader of the revolt. ""It was hard not to cry, and so many of the others did cry, which made us all shed tears. Because you knew this was what my people went through.''
These harrowing Middle Passage scenes will not be forgotten by anyone who sees Spielberg's movie: the horrors of the slave trade have rarely been captured in such indelible, painful images. Nor will the film's stunning seabound opening section. ""Amistad'' begins with Cinque's breaking his shackles and murdering the crew. Spielberg makes two unconventional choices here: presenting the bloody uprising before he shows us the brutalizing events that led up to it, and having the Africans speak in their native tongues without subtitles. He's deliberately flirting with the stereotype of the Savage, putting us in the position of a white 19th-century American first encountering The Other and not knowing what to make of him. Later Spielberg allows us to see white society through the Africans' eyes--even finding some humor in the vision of dour New England abolitionists singing Christian hymns on the jailhouse steps. Who are these weird people? the prisoners wonder. ""They must be entertainers,'' Cinque speculates.
The tale is rich in reverberations. The legal battle that ensues over the fate of the mutineers is waged over the issue of property rights, but mighty interests--political and philosophical--are at stake, from those of Queen Isabella of Spain, who insists that the slaves belong to Spain, to those of President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), who, facing an election, fears that a victory for the Africans will lose him the Southern vote. Van Buren cynically overturns the lower court's first decision--won by John Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), an inexperienced real-estate lawyer--and handpicks a judge who will, he thinks, give him the decision he wants.
Most of this is riveting--but there are moments when you feel you're watching a history pageant or civics lesson. McConaughey, saddled with granny glasses and an unlocatable accent, takes considerable getting used to: he's incorrigibly contemporary. Morgan Freeman is wasted in the underwritten role of a black abolitionist who has little to do but look sorrowful. The ease with which he navigates white New Haven society seems more 1990s than 1840s. This is Spielberg's first venture into an earlier century; understandably uncertain of 19th-century behavior, he sometimes falls back on fussy shtik--like John Quincy Adams's puttering among his plants--that is uncharacteristically stagy.
But if ""Amistad'' falls short of Spielberg's highest accomplishments, it still has power to burn. In Djimon Hounsou, whose Cinque cuts a figure of stunning strength and grace, he has discovered an actor of astonishing charisma. (A decade ago Hounsou was homeless on the streets of Paris. His striking looks caught the attention of a photographer; a modeling and acting career followed.) Anthony Hopkins, under mounds of makeup, is deeply moving as the flinty, eloquent John Quincy Adams, coaxed at the age of 74 into arguing for the Africans' freedom in front of a Supreme Court in which six of the nine justices were slave owners. These two actors are the strong, beating heart of the movie. Spielberg will be hailed for nobly resurrecting this important piece of history, and he deserves to be. But he's no fool: he knows a great story when he sees one. And he has always known that in America, and in the movies, the way to reach the conscience is through the gut.