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''Amistad'' faces another battle

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Matthew McConaughey is pulling three African men along on a chain. They have iron collars around their necks and manacles fixed to their wrists and ankles. As McConaughey tugs them across the wooden floor of a courtroom in Rhode Island, they have to shuffle to keep up.

The first of the Africans is Abu Bakarr Fofanah. An actor from Sierra Leone, he wears a prosthesis in his mouth that makes his teeth look like they’ve been filed down to triangular, needle-sharp points. While director Steven Spielberg coaches the scene from a creaky bench, McConaughey, sporting 19th-century muttonchops and playing a sort of antebellum ambulance chaser, drags Fofanah to the podium to show the fangs to the judge. ”I suppose he learned this on some Cuban plantation,” McConaughey says sarcastically, ”this decorative effect.”

This is a key scene in Amistad — Spielberg’s new movie about a group of Africans who went on trial after they rose up and seized their slave ship, the Amistad, in 1839 — and the director wants to shoot it a few different ways. First, he has McConaughey grin at Fofanah, coaxing the African into smiling. ”Don’t overlap your smiles,” Spielberg tells the actors. ”He smiles. You smile.”

Another take. ”One more time,” Spielberg says. ”Point to his teeth when you say decorative effect.” McConaughey does this, placing his finger an inch from Fofanah’s mouth.

Another take. ”Do it again,” Spielberg says. ”And raise his upper lip when you say decorative effect.” This time, McConaughey pries open the actor’s lips with his fingertips.

Watching the scene on this cold March morning is enough to make anyone a little queasy, a feeling compounded by a mist machine that gives the room the fetid aroma of a pond. People are growing used to the mist, but nobody grows numb to the constant clanking of the shackles — not even the propman in charge of them. ”It’s kind of tough putting the chains on the guys,” says Martin Grimes, 36, who is African American. ”Psychologically. Physically. It’s my job. I have to do it. But it feels a lot better taking ’em off than it does putting ’em on.” After finishing the scene McConaughey leaves the set thinking, as he puts it, ”Wow, that’s so damn inhumane.”

Ironically, McConaughey is playing one of the heroes of Amistad: Roger Sherman Baldwin, the Connecticut lawyer who defended the Africans after they landed in America and were charged with murder. Thanks to Baldwin, who carried their case all the way to the Supreme Court, the real-life saga of the Amistad brought America’s eternal anxieties about race boiling into the spotlight; it became a heated cause for the antislavery movement and a harbinger of the Civil War but then faded into obscurity over 150 years. As Spielberg says, Amistad is less an account of slavery than the tale of ”how these Africans are hopelessly caught up in the quagmire of the American justice system.”

But seven months after he shot the courtroom scene, Spielberg has wound up in a legal quagmire of his own — one that could threaten the fate of his movie. In October, an author named Barbara Chase-Riboud filed a $10 million lawsuit in U.S. district court in Los Angeles. She accused Spielberg’s DreamWorks of stealing elements of Echo of Lions, her out-of-print 1989 novel based on the Amistad revolt. Then she took a drastic step: She asked for an injunction to stop the $39 million film from coming out. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 8.

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