David Franzoni and Steven Spielberg, 1997

To a non-believer hell is such a transparently hollow threat, so manifestly an invention of a primitive culture, that it's hard to believe that anyone could seriously feel the need to be saved from it. But then again... I'm on record saying that, while I think that reincarnation probably doesn't happen, I can't dismiss it altogether, because the biggest buy-in is incarnation itself  — the notion that after over thirteen billion years of oblivion, and before that the non-existence of time, you could come into existence as a conscious creature registering experiences — and once you've established that, it's a relatively short stretch to say that it might happen again. Similarly, what is hell other than the notion that one could be plucked from oblivion into a plane of incomprehensible torment? And as a movie like Amistad reminds us, isn't that precisely the experience of, conservatively, millions? How can I unequivocally state that something like hell doesn't exist when even the most hair-raising descriptions of it don't sound that much worse than the conditions on a slave ship, and I know that slave ships existed?

Amistad isn't really a great movie. The strings are too visible: the music too obtrusive, the events too clearly scripted as movie scenes, the historical figures too clearly reshaped into movie characters — for instance, the filmmakers make John Quincy Adams into a stock character, the crotchety old man with a distinguishing hobby (in this case gardening). But it's still pretty cool to see him get his due as one of the great figures in American history, and I think it was a valuable project to illustrate the extent to which human beings have brought about nothing short of hell on earth for reasons as banal as making shirts a little cheaper.

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