At the climax of Amistad, Steven Spielberg’s rescue fantasy about the rebellion, recapture, and courtroom liberation of African slaves, the slave leader Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) teaches John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) the value of ancestor worship.footnote＊ He thereby authors the Supreme Court brief that wins back his freedom. The camera that lingers lovingly in soft focus on one founding father bust after another has come a long way from Amistad’s opening scene, in which African freedom emerges from the fragmentary, chaotic violence of what turns out to be a slave revolt. As something moves mysteriously on the black screen, a flash of lightning illuminates—to quote from Time critic Richard Shickel’s glowing review—‘the wild rolling eye of what might be a desperate and panicked animal.’ Less thrilled than Schickel, the Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy spotted ‘the same lightning-lit eye technique that made T Rex so spooky in Jurassic Park.’ Milloy goes on, ‘Spielberg brings Cinque to life as a sweaty, black-faced monster with fingers dripping with blood. By the time Cinque breaks out of the bowels of the boat and slaughters some of his captors, I am left wondering: Didn’t I see a Spielberg dinosaur do the same thing in The Lost World?’footnote1
Like the pieces of a kaleidoscope falling into place, Amistad’s jump-cut, opening fragments coalesce into a single climactic primal shot—Cinque rising up and roaring in violent triumph as he pulls a sword from the belly of the Spanish ship’s captain. Spielberg may have been invoking King Arthur’s Excalibur, but he also had another king, another animal, in mind. ‘Spielberg must be aware’, writes David Edelstein, that the shot that synthesizes his two identities—as director of monster films and historical holocausts—is an homage to King Kong. As Edelstein puts it, ‘He has set out to make the King Kong that actually happened.’footnote2
Dr. Frankenstein was the modern Prometheus; Cinque—kidnapped from Africa, chained, and exploited for profit—is the modern King Kong. Spielberg has remade ‘that most primal of all white xenophobic movie fantasies’footnote3 into an anti-slavery spectacle that redeems white America as well. Just as the exhibition of King Kong in chains shifted audience sympathy from captors to captive, so media-generated foreknowledge of the fate of the reimprisoned Amistad rebels allows us to admire at once African savagery and the white men who free the slaves a second time.
Admire is too mild a word. Critics who have debated whether unsubtitled Mende dialogue exoticizes the Africans ought to pay more attention to the camera. Eliminating the white woman as the object of King Kong’s desire, and inheriting the exhibitor-photographer position displayed within that film, Amistad turns its lens on the black male body instead. For the male gaze that adores the founder’s sculpted heads has tracked seamlessly from violent slave revolt through the softcore porn display of black genitalia. It is Amistad’s signal achievement to give eroticized African exoticism the antislavery paternal blessing.
‘The spectacular fusion of kitsch and death’footnote4 haunts representations of historical horror, which necessarily flirt with a prurient interest in torture. The pornography of violence in Schindler’s List culminates in the now-notorious shower scene, the ‘full-frontal nudity’, as an admiring account puts it,footnote5 of Jewish women of all ages and shapes—except skeletal—whose shower-nozzle death by gassing turns out to be an actual shower. The most important woman in Amistad, by contrast, who plays with human captives as if they were her dolls, is the over-dressed ‘pubescent Queen’, Isabella. Black women in full-frontal nudity are tossed overboard in Amistad’s middle passage flashback, to be sure, but it is black men who replace Schindler’s Jewish women as the object of sensationalist eroticism.
The neoconservative film critic Michael Medved, who has attacked Hollywood’s indulgence of sex and violence, ridicules the white Amistad actors dressed in their grandfathers’ clothes; he recognizes that they all unintentionally share the costume-drama absurdity Spielberg means to restrict to the girl Queen and her proslavery American collaborators. Like Oprah Winfrey—‘the best screen performance ever by a black actor’—however, Medved drools over the ‘former male model’ Djimon Hounsou, ‘who brings leonine grace, muscular self-assurance, and spectacular emotional range’ to the Cinque role. This overexcited critic mentions neither the shots of naked black men casually filmed from behind nor the flashes of cock and ass during the ‘harrowing’ middle passage flashback.footnote6
American mass culture has covered this territory before, from the ‘longtailed blue’ of nineteenth-century blackface minstreslyfootnote7 to John Ford’s Prisoner of Shark Island (1935), where interracial physical intimacy between white master and black man is set against half-naked massed black guards on the prison island where the doctor suspected of aiding John Wilkes Booth is brutalized. Times have changed, but masochistic investment, the display of black male bodies, and the wish for interracial embrace and forgiveness all remain constants under the reversal in ideological sign.