15. 'Amistad' (1997)
Yes, the "Give…us…free!" sequence might be the worst thing Spielberg has ever directed – the kind of syrupy, sentimental indulgence his detractors were always going on about. But the rest of this film, much maligned at the time, is incredibly powerful. Following the real-life legal efforts to free a group of slaves who took over the title ship in 1839, this historical drama is alternately sober-minded and passionate. Because the slaves – led by Djimon Hounsou, giving one of the finest performances in any Spielberg movie – were treated as property under U.S. law at the time, two Abolitionists (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard) have to make common cause with an oily real estate lawyer (played by Matthew McConaughey). But the film balances that disturbing insight with a ferocious, traumatic flashback to the "Middle Passage," showing the unthinkable brutality with which these human beings were treated during their journey. In many ways, Amistad is the necessary correlative to Lincoln, which shows how Abraham Lincoln and his allies had to use duplicitous means to achieve justice.