June 26, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

This is the other ambitious epic named for a doomed ocean vessel. But after its stunning start?a lightning-charged uprising on the slave ship La Amistad?Steven Spielberg?s film becomes a too-stately courtroom drama, with the Africans in the dock, the issue of slavery on trial at didactic length, and the top-billed Morgan Freeman as an abolitionist shunted to the sidelines with too little to do. If you?re tempted to fast-forward through the speechifying, don?t?lest you miss the buildup to the most memorable moments, among them a harrowing flashback to the slaves? nightmarish New World voyage and a primal explosion by slave leader Cinque (Hounsou), who halts one trial by crying out ?Give us us free! Give us us free!? The scene smacks of Spielbergian grandstanding?but the rage and pain of Hounsou?s fierce performance keep it compellingly real.

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