Slavery could, I suppose, be seen largely as a matter of laws and property--at least to those benefitting from it. One of the astonishing facts revealed in Steven Spielberg's “Amistad” is that seven of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices in 1839 were slave-owning Southerners. His new film centers on the legal status of Africans who rise up against their captors on the high seas and are brought to trial in a New England court. Slavery itself is not the issue. Instead, the court must decide whether the defendants were born of slaves (in which case they are guilty of murder) or were illegally brought from Africa (and therefore had a right to defend themselves against kidnapping).
This legal distinction is not made as clear as it could have been; the international slave trade had been outlawed by treaties by 1839, the year of the landmark Amistad incident, but those who were already slaves remained the property of their masters--as did their children. The moral hair-splitting underlying that distinction is truly depraved, but on it depends the defense of Cinque, the leader of the Africans, and his fellow mutineers.
The film opens on the ship Amistad, where Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) is able to free himself from shackles and release his fellow prisoners. They rise up against the Spanish crew of the ship, which is taking them from a Havana slave market to another destination in Cuba. The two men who bought them are spared, and promise to guide the ship back to Africa. But they guide it instead into U.S. waters, and the Africans find themselves in an American court.
Luckily, it is a Northern court, or they would have little chance at all. They are unlucky at first with their defense team, which is led by Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), a real estate lawyer who bases his case on property law and only slowly comes to see his clients as human beings. The cause is supported by two Boston abolitionists, a former slave named Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and an immigrant named Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard). And eventually, on appeal, former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) argues eloquently for the freedom of the men.
“Amistad,” like Spielberg's “Schindler's List,” is not simply an argument against immorality. We do not need movies to convince us of the evil of slavery and the Holocaust. Both films are about the ways good men try to work realistically within an evil system to spare a few of its victims. Schindler's strategies are ingenious and suspenseful, and lead to a more gripping and powerful film than the legal tactics in “Amistad,” where lawyers in powdered wigs try to determine the origin of men whose language they do not speak.
Entirely apart from the moral issues involved, “Schindler's List” works better as narrative because it is about a risky deception, while “Amistad” is about the search for a truth that, if found, will be small consolation to the millions of existing slaves. As a result, the movie doesn't have the emotional charge of Spielberg's earlier film--or of “The Color Purple,” which moved me to tears.
The moments of greatest emotion in “Amistad” stand outside the main story. They include a horrifying scene where, with food running low on the ship, the weaker captives are chained together and thrown over the side to drown so that more food will be left for the rest. And another sequence in which the mechanics of the slave trade are examined, as Africans capture members of enemy tribes and sell them to slave traders. A scene where Cinque sees African violets in John Quincy Adams' greenhouse and is seized with homesickness. And Cinque's memory of his wife left in Africa.
What is most valuable about “Amistad” is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims. The captive called Cinque emerges as a powerful individual, a once-free farmer who has lost his wife and family. We see his wife, and his village, and something of his life; we understand how cruelly he was ripped from his life and ambitions. (Since it was the policy of slavery to destroy African families, these scenes are especially poignant.) He speaks no English, but learns a little while in prison, and a translator is found who helps him express his dismay at a legal system that may free him but will not affirm the true nature of the crime against him. He learns enough of Western civilization to see its contradictions, as in a scene where a fellow captive uses an illustrated Bible to explain how he can identify with Jesus. And there is a touching scene between lawyer and client in which Joadson at last talks to Cinque as a man and not as a piece in a puzzle. “Give us free!” Cinque cries in a powerful moment in the courtroom, indicating how irrelevant a “not guilty” verdict would be to the real facts of his case.
Djimon Hounsou's performance depends largely on his screen presence, which is formidable. Some of the other performances are disappointing. I was surprised how little importance or screen time was given to the Morgan Freeman character, who in his few scenes indicates the volumes that remain concealed.
Matthew McConaughey's character is necessarily unfocused as the defense attorney; he proceeds from moral blindness to a light that surprises no one, and while we are happy for him we are not, under the circumstances, much moved.
Nigel Hawthorne plays President Martin Van Buren, who is portrayed as a spineless compromiser who wants only to keep the South off his back; the character is played in the same note as his pathetic old George III in “The Madness Of King George,” when more shrewd calculation might have been effective.
The heart of the film, really, is in Anthony Hopkins' powerful performance as old John Quincy Adams, who speaks for 11 minutes in defense of the defendants, and holds the courtroom (and the audience) spellbound. It is one of the great movie courtroom speeches. But in praising it, I touch on the film's great weakness: It is too much about the law and not enough about the victims.
Ever since Spielberg began “Amistad,” the story has been hyped and hailed as a great untold chapter in American history, an event to put beside Nat Turner's uprising. The story of Cinque certainly deserves more attention in textbooks, but it is not an ideal story to make into a film; Nat Turner would have been a better choice for Spielberg. That John Quincy Adams wins his big case is a great achievement for him and a great relief for Cinque and his fellow captives, but in the sad annals of American slavery, it is a rather hollow triumph.
The Amistad Case in Fact and Film
by Eric Foner
Historian Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, examines the issues surrounding the historical film Amistad. In this essay he explores the problems faced by the producers of Amistad and the shortcomings of both the film and its accompanying study guide in their attempt to portray history. More importantly, Foner raises questions not only about the accuracy of details and lack of historic context, but also about the messages behind Hollywood’s portrayal of history as entertainment. (Posted March 1998)
Compared with most Hollywood megafilms, Amistad must be considered a step forward: it’s about slavery, not exploding volcanoes or rampaging raptors. But given that Steven Spielberg is the director, Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman the stars, and a reported $75 million was spent on production, it can only be judged a disappointment. It does contain a few visually compelling moments, such as the scene on a slave ship that viscerally conveys the horrors of the Middle Passage. Overall, however, as a movie Amistad is simply a bore. As history, this account of a Cuban slave ship seized in 1839 by its African captives, and their legal travail that ended in the U. S. Supreme Court, also leaves much to be desired.
Amistad‘s problems go far deeper than such anachronisms as President Martin Van Buren campaigning for reelection on a whistle-stop train tour (in 1840, candidates did not campaign), or people constantly talking about the coming Civil War, which lay twenty years in the future. Despite the filmmakers’ orgy of self-congratulation for rescuing black heroes from oblivion, the main characters of Amistad are white, not black.
The plot pivots on lawyer Roger Baldwin’s dawning realization that the case he is defending involves human beings, not just property rights, and on the transformation of John Quincy Adams, who initially refuses to assist the captives but eventually persuades the Supreme Court to order their return to Africa. As in Glory, an earlier film about black Civil War soldiers, Amistad's black characters are essentially foils for white self-discovery and moral growth.
This problem is compounded by having the Africans speak Mende, a West African language, with English subtitles. A courageous decision by Hollywood standards, this device backfired along the way when someone realized that Americans do not like subtitled movies, as foreign filmmakers have known for decades. In the end, most of the Mende dialogue ended up on the cutting- room floor. Apart from the intrepid Cinque, the Africans' leader, we never learn how the captives responded to their ordeal. It would have been far better to have the Africans speak English (the film, after all, is historical fiction), rather than rendering them virtually mute.
Most seriously, Amistad presents a highly misleading account of the case’s historical significance, in the process sugarcoating the relationship between the American judiciary and slavery. The film gives the distinct impression that the Supreme Court was convinced by Adams' plea to repudiate slavery in favor of the natural rights of man, thus taking a major step on the road to abolition.
In fact, the Amistad case revolved around the Atlantic slave trade — by 1840 outlawed by international
treaty — and had nothing whatever to do with slavery as an domestic institution. Incongruous as it may seem, it was perfectly possible in the nineteenth century to condemn the importation of slaves from Africa while simultaneously defending slavery and the flourishing slave trade within the United States.
In October 1841, in an uncanny parallel to events on the Amistad, American slaves being transported from Virginia to Louisiana on the Creole seized control of the ship, killing some crew members and directing the mate to sail to the Bahamas. For fifteen years, American Secretaries of State unsuccessfully badgered British authorities to return the slaves as both murderers and “the recognized property” of American citizens. This was far more typical of the government’s stance toward slavery than the Amistad affair.
Rather than being receptive to abolitionist sentiment, the courts were among the main defenders of slavery. A majority of the Amistad justices, after all, were still on the Supreme Court in 1857 when, in the Dred Scott decision, it prohibited Congress from barring slavery from the Western territories and proclaimed that blacks in the United States had “no rights which a white man is bound to respect.”
The film’s historical problems are compounded by the study guide now being distributed to schools, which encourages educators to use Amistad to teach about slavery. The guide erases the distinction between fact and fiction, urging students, for example, to study black abolitionism through the film’s invented character, Theodore Joadson, rather than real historical figures. And it fallaciously proclaims the case a “turning-point in the struggle to end slavery in the United States.”
Most galling, however, is the assumption that a subject does not exist until it is discovered by Hollywood. The guide ends with a quote from Debbie Allen, Amistad's producer, castigating historians for suppressing the “real history” of African-Americans and slavery. Historians may be guilty of many sins, but ignoring slavery is not one of them. For the past forty years, no subject has received more scholarly attention. All American history textbooks today contain extensive treatments of slavery, almost always emphasizing the system’s brutality and the heroism of those who survived — the very things Amistad's promoters claim have been suppressed.
If the authors of the study guide really want to promote an understanding of slavery, they should direct students not to this highly flawed film, but to the local library. There they will discover several shelves of books on slavery and slave resistance, from academic tomes to works for children. Maybe, in this era of budget cuts, some of that $75 million could have more profitably been spent on our public libraries.