Unchained Melody

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, IN the middle of a storm, in the middle of an ocean, 53 Africans break out of their chains and slaughter the crew of a Cuban slave ship called the Amistad. True story. Unfortunately, the Africans don't know how to sail. Their leader, a tribesman named Cinque ("Sinkay"), lets the captain and the first mate live and demands the ship return to Sierra Leone. Instead, the Cubans take them to New York's Long Island, where they're captured and put on trial. The Africans should never have been on the Amistad in the first place: it's 1839, and kidnapping slaves from Africa has been illegal for years. So the venal prosecutors claim the slaves are Cuban. How can Cinque et al. prove their identity? They can't speak English. They don't even know you're supposed to stand when the judge walks in.

A century and a half later, Steven Spielberg is shooting a courtroom scene for "Amistad" in a weathered brick courthouse in Newport, R.I. At this point in the story, the case has become a surreal international circus. The Africans have few allies--a broke young attorney (Matthew McConaughey) and a prominent abolitionist (Morgan Freeman)-and they're desperate to make themselves understood. Suddenly, Cinque (former model Dijimon Hounsou) rises and astonishes the court by chanting in broken English, "Give us free! Give us free!" It's a powerful moment, and the set is silent a long time before Spielberg yells, "That's a print." He leans back in his chair, clearly moved. "Wow," he says. "This is the moment I've been waiting for." Producer Debbie Allen takes his hand. "You are such the right man for this movie," she says. "There was no one else to do this film but you." Literally. Some African-Americans may object to a white man-the director of the controversial "The Color Purple," no less--directing an important page out of black history. Allen has a ready reply: nobody else would touch it.

In May, Spielberg will release his second dinosaur picture, "The Lost World," but at the moment he's engaged in a sequel of a subtler sort. "Amistad," which should cost a comparatively modest $40 million, is the first film he's directing for his new studio, DreamWorks SKG. It's a kind of moral analogue to "Schindler's List." When the movie is released in December, the director may get teased for moonlighting as an international freedom fighter. But, given the gripping script by Steve Zaillian, who also wrote "Schindler's List," Spielberg may be laughing all the way to the Shrine Auditorium come Oscar night 1998. "There was one side of my brain saying, wait two, three or four years before you do 'Amistad' because everything you do will be compared to 'Schindler's List'," he admits. "But I've never planned my career and never made good on phantom conversations with myself like that. I have them a million times, but in the end I kinda do what I think I gotta do when I get the urge."

Allen, an actress, TV director and choreographer, read about the Amistad while visiting Howard University in 1982. She was mesmerized. Hollywood was not. "Doors were closed constantly as soon as people heard what it was about," she says. The Amistad revolt ended in an unlikely triumph: John Quincy Adams (played by Anthony Hopkins) came out of retirement to argue the Africans' case in the Supreme Court. Cinque gave Adams legal advice from his cell. The Africans were freed. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a consultant on "Amistad," believes that finale scared the studios. "I don't think Hollywood was ready to showcase a film where black people actually take control of their destiny and fight back and kill without being punished," he says. But African-American directors also passed on "Amistad" -- even Spike Lee, whose younger brother is named after Cinque. "Black directors knew all about this story," says Allen. "The opportunity was there for any of them to make it, and they didn't."

For a good reason, perhaps. Even after Lee jump-started black cinema in the '80s, there was only a market for contemporary films about boyz and the hood. Things have not improved much since. John Singleton's "Rosewood," the true story of whites on a murderous rampage in a black Florida town in the '20s, made just $2 million opening weekend. "I'd love to make movies about our history, and I would if I thought people would see them, but that hasn't been the case," says director Keenen Ivory Wayans. "Look at 'Glory' -- it barely made its money back, and as a black director you can't afford that. Failed box office is a strike against us." Allen needed a director who could afford to flop.

As it happened, Allen's kids went to elementary school with some of Spielberg's kids, two of whom, Theo and Mikaela, are adopted and African-American. Allen and Spielberg met during a potluck parent-teacher breakfast. "I made a pot of grits and, let me tell you, Steven was the first one with his spoon in the pot," says Allen. (Spielberg asked for the recipe and took a batch to the White House. Says Allen, "He forgot to put the salt and the butter in them, so Lord knows what the Clintons think of me now!") Spielberg, who'd not yet embarked on "Lost World," had been busily launching DreamWorks with David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. "It was fun, but not as fun as directing a movie," he says. "Business is near beer, but direction is beer. And I think my partners are more interested in me being behind the camera and not being a pencil pusher."

Some African-Americans in Hollywood are curious about how "Amistad" is progressing--Denzel Washington calls Allen regularly-but there's been no criticism. This is partly because Allen and a Dream-Works executive, named Cinque Henderson as it happens, are doing a canny job of heading off negativity. They argued against casting Will Smith, among others, in favor of actual Africans. And they've also invited black artists and intellectuals to visit the set and consult: Lee, Gates, Maya Angelou, Cornel West and Quincy Jones.

But there may be another reason that "Amistad" is being given safe passage. Who's going to criticize Steven Spielberg? Probably no one in the entertainment industry. Cuba Gooding Jr., who was passed over for the role of Cinque, made a glib remark about Spielberg in a pre-Oscar interview. Gooding implied that Spielberg wants stereotypical Africans shouting, "Mogumbo mojumbo." Which is ridiculous. Gooding, in a panicky fit of apology, sent fruit baskets to the set.

So is Spielberg the right director for this movie? Well, he can certainly get "Amistad" seen. He's not expecting the movie to be a box-office smash, but he figures he can snag 15 million TV viewers someday. (Last month 65 million watched "Schindler's List.") Should Spielberg's race be an issue? Some critics found "The Color Purple" too PG and picturesque, but "Schindler" was not the work of a man who pulls punches. Gates has read the "Amistad" script: "There is no doubt that it reeks of integrity. And I think it's important to remember that our stories cannot be ghettoized-they have to be a part of American history."

Spielberg agrees. "I am making this film for my black children and my white children," he says. "They all need to know this story." The revolt began with an interracial bloodbath, but ended with an outbreak of harmony. "This is a rare incident in American history that shows powerful black people forming alliances with powerful white people for a good cause," says Gates. "And it shows white people at their best, rallying around captives and fighting for their freedom." The Africans ultimately sailed back to Sierra Leone. Amistad means friendship. True story.