Steven Spielberg's Amistad (DreamWorks) opens on an image of literal darkness: a man's eye, viewed in sweaty chiaroscuro close-up, his black skin glistening in a room even blacker than he is, the man working feverishly to wedge a nail out of a wooden floor. Moments later, he uses the nail to unlock himself from the chains he's wearing and proceeds to lead an ambush against his captors the white overseers on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, which is heading toward Cuba on a stormy night in 1839. The sequence is shocking for two reasons. One, because it's raw and bloody and frenzied, culminating in the image of the man, with a roar of vengeance, plunging a sword into his captor's chest. But it's also shocking because the characters don't exist as individuals. They haven't been glimpsed in the light they're strictly butchers and meat and so the brutality itself is violently dehumanized, a ''mythical'' abstraction of slave rage.
The vengeful mutineers drift on the ocean for two months and are apprehended by a British military vessel off the coast of Long Island. As they go on trial for murder, Amistad, replaying the events surrounding the actual Amistad insurrection, puts the issue of slavery itself on trial. Bravely, the film takes its radical stand: It says that slavery is wrong, obscene, an assault on human dignity and freedom. To make the case, it introduces a series of dryly articulate statesmen-advocates. There's the affable real estate attorney Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), who is eager to take up the cause of the Amistad slaves, none of whom can speak English. There are the diplomatic and rather ineffectual abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard). And there's the former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), a noble if reluctant freedom fighter who is ultimately wheeled out of retirement, as though the moment had arrived for him to audition for a place on a dollar bill, to argue the case before the Supreme Court.
Amistad, as you may have gathered, is not exactly an African-American Schindler's List. In that movie, Spielberg was out to capture the existential terrors of the Holocaust, the experience of the unspeakable; the film's force lay in its vividly unfolding moment-to-moment realism. Amistad takes on a mass atrocity of more than comparable scope, but its approach is almost bizarrely academic. Midway through, there's a 20-minute sequence that showcases, in graphic detail, the claustrophobic horrors of the ''Middle Passage'' (bloody whippings, starvation, mass drownings). Otherwise, though, the film seems all but uninterested in the psychological experience of slavery or, indeed, in the personalities of its slave protagonists. Its investment is in the issue of slavery, one that Spielberg uses to craft a courtroom drama of dull, soapbox ponderousness.
As Cinque, who leads the revolt, Djimon Hounsou has a fine, incendiary presence; he does all he can to create a full-bodied character. But the role, as written, allows Hounsou precious few dimensions. Cinque speaks in Mende, his native African tongue, and the movie at once respects the historical reality of this difficulty and plays with it in a disquieting way. Cinque and his cohorts speak with subtitles sometimes. At others, their words aren't subtitled and remain baffling to us. But why? Why not let us hear the intimacy of their thoughts when they're with one another?
The first hour of Amistad is devoted to the laborious spectacle of McConaughey's Baldwin trying to devise a way to communicate with Cinque and to learn where, exactly, he comes from. By the time Cinque, having absorbed a few words of English, stands up at the end of the first trial (there are two more to go) and shouts ''Give us...free!'' he has been made into such a passive figure that the film seems less morally enlightened than its own ad campaign (''Freedom is not given.... But there are moments when it must be taken''). Amistad is two and a half hours of black men sitting around in chains waiting to be given their freedom.
By the time John Q. Adams, with his aristocratic sideburns, shows up at the Supreme Court, the film has lapsed into liberal self-caricature. Hopkins, usually a great actor, grins and shambles as if he were the Wizard of Oz handing out prizes (a diploma for you, and you guys...get your freedom!). No wonder Amistad presents Adams as its true hero. He's the one who clinches the victory, and victory (as in awards) is what this movie has its eye on. C