Tired of waiting and concerned that it might never come to Bangor, I snuck to Providence, R.I., recently to see Steven Speilberg’s “Amistad,” the much-hyped film about a revolt aboard a Spanish slave ship carrying Africans to bondage in America.
Despite what seems an interminable wait, the movie that was released on Thanksgiving in many cities will reach our fair city soon.
Frank McGowan, film buyer for Hoyts Cinemas, said he expected to open the movie in Bangor on the weekend starting Friday, Feb. 6.
It is worth the wait, but certainly unfair that we were put through such a long haul.
The reason for this nearly three-month wait is strictly business on the part of Hoyts Cinemas and Dreamworks, Spielberg’s film company.
McGowan said the problem began when “Amistad” was issued in a limited release of about 200 prints. Dreamworks has been stingily opening the spigot to allow more copies of the film to trickle out, but the only place showing the film in Maine is Hoyts Cinemas in South Portland.
Dreamworks also insisted that any theater that showed its film in late December or January must run it through Feb. 10 when Academy Award nominations are unveiled. Spielberg is hoping his film racks up a bunch of nominations.
McGowan said he decided he could not afford to run “Amistad” in a Bangor cinema for as long as seven weeks. He didn’t think he had the audience for such a lengthy run. So he is waiting to open for a shorter three- to four-week run around the time of the nominations. He expects to open the film at cinemas in Augusta and Auburn on the same weekend, but Presque Isle will have to wait. He would not say when it might open in Aroostook County.
Despite the clamor for the film among history buffs in Bangor, “Amistad” is not doing as well as initially expected.
“It’s doing good, solid business, but not great business,” McGowan said.
While the 2,700 copies of “Titanic” grossed $35 million last weekend, the 1,000 copies of Amistad brought in $3 million.
McGowan said some communities the size of Bangor already have seen the film, but this was because of demographics and direct connections to issues raised in the movie. For example, the film has been in many Rhode Island and Connecticut communities since before Christmas because much of it was shot there. The Africans are put on trial in 1839 in New Haven, Conn., and Spielberg filmed much of the movie in Mystic, Conn., and Newport, Jamestown and Providence, R.I.
Spielberg became a veritable Works Progress Administration jobs program for Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut by employing hundreds of extras and hiring lace makers, metalworkers and carpenters in the region to help construct the elaborate New England sets.
McGowan said the film was also more likely to show in places with sizable black populations, such as the communities around Washington, D.C.
These business considerations ignore the fact that Bangorites have an unusually keen interest in history and a particular penchant for 19th-century history connected to the Civil War.
Spielberg claims in the film that the Supreme Court case involving the Africans who revolted and were later captured aboard the Amistad off Long Island set the stage for the war between the states.
Although historians disagree with some of the fine points of Spielberg’s interpretation of history, the film raises issues of race and culture and history that have rarely, if ever, been seen on the screen.
The movie is primarily about the slave trade — the single most profitable and inhuman commerce that built this country. But “Amistad” is not a simple story of pro-slavery vs. anti-slavery, Northerner vs. Southerner. Instead it is a nuanced tale involving international law, human rights and cultural differences.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the movie is the struggle by the Africans and New Englanders to communicate across language and cultural barriers. At first, there is little understanding on both sides. Cinque, the African leader of the revolt and star of the movie, speaks to his fellow captives in a New Haven prison in his native Mende and tries to analyze the strange behavior of New Englanders around him. As he watches a group of severely dressed churchgoers, he wonders what the people are doing singing hymns to his fellow Africans. Finally, he decides they must be entertainers, but wonders why they are so dour.
The New Englanders make equally humorous assumptions about the Africans.
As some reviewers have pointed out, the Spielberg version of history reflects modern opinions about race and culture even more than it does the thoughts of these early Americans. This is where the viewer must be wary and realize the movie is only a beginning — a dramatic, beautiful and moving Hollywood-enhanced beginning — to understanding this historic period.
But unlike many reviewers who have cynically put down this film and probably contributed to its marginal showing in Maine and other small communities in America, I say it is well worth seeing. It’s disturbing that the limited release is bringing the movie to a very predictable audience.
It should be shown throughout America because the issues of race are alive in every community no matter the complexion of the people. It is not a black movie, a white movie, a Northern movie or a Southern movie. The slave trade and its painful echoes touch us all.