Like Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” “Ill Gotten Gains” takes place during the waning years of organized African slave trading. It would be nice to report that the low-budget indie topped the Hollywood production in moxie and thoughtfulness. But its crude production values are matched by a vile tone and amateur theatrics that often reach embarrassing levels. While it will attract attention for both its subject matter and broad similarities to the earlier release, “Gains” loses in comparison, which spells poor theatrical and ancillary returns.
Set on the Guinea Coast in 1869, the story centers on the Argon Miss, which is transporting two dozen Africans to a life of servitude. An attempt at revolt is quelled, but the seeds of dissent have been planted.
Filmmaker Joel Ben Marsden appreciates the resonance of this volatile historical chapter. But his sense of outrage fails to lend the story shape or focus: Characters emerge and recede willy-nilly, and relationships remain vague. Helmer employs an unidentified offscreen narrator with ambiguous intent, and introduces tribal magic less as a story device than a fuzzy demarcation of cultural borders. In short, this pic is a mess.
The plot is drawn more from cinematic potboilers than historic documentation, and performances call for little more than adopting an attitude. The Africans on the ship, with rare exception, are a horde of poorly defined extras. They are a cliche of nobility; the slave traders are sadists and ghouls, not unlike the “bad” guards in a prison movie.
Filmed in black and white, “Ill Gotten Gains” has some startling early images that were shot in Cameroon. But once the action shifts to studio sets and coastal California, it becomes visually mundane at best. The musical score is intrusive and obvious. The film is an extreme case of good intentions gone woefully wrong.