Spielberg: Amistad

When I think of DreamWorks Pictures I automatically think of Shrek, Shark Tale and Madagascar. At a push it might summon up thoughts of Dreamgirls, Blades of Glory or even Transformers, but they’re all nice fluffy films right? A chance to get lost in a fantasy world for two hours or so and not really think of it afterwards (or try really hard not to because it’s so bad in the case of Transformers!) Well, let me take you on a little journey, back in time, to the year of 1997, Stephen Spielberg had just co-founded a company by the name of DreamWorks SKG and was looking for a debut production to direct so when approached by actress, Debbie Allen, who had been reading books on the slave trade, a project was born.

Amistad is Spielberg’s two and a half hour epic based on the true story of the fight of a group of enslaved Africans on the ship, La Amistad, and the court cases that followed in 1839.

The film begins in the depths of the ship where protagonist, Sengbe Pieh, most known by his Spanish name, “Cinque,” painstakingly picks a nail out of the ship’s structure and picks the lock on his shackles. After freeing a number of his companions, Cinque initiates a mutiny on board the craft. During the subsequent battle, several Africans and most of the ship’s Spanish crew are killed, but Cinque saves two officers, Ruiz and Montez, whom he believes can sail them back to Africa. It’s a dark and dramatic opening to the film but sets the tone well. It is a lot more bloodthirsty than I expected and that, combined with the intense storm raging throughout, informs you immediately there will be no sugar-coating of the relationship between slave and trader in this film.

After six weeks of sailing, tensions between the Africans are soaring as supplies of food and fresh water are rapidly diminishing.  When they finally sight land, they are unsure of their location and a group of African men takes one of the ship’s boats to shore to fetch fresh water. Whilst there, La Amistad is captured by the American Navy, the Spaniards have tricked them by sailing them to the U.S. and the Amistad Africans are taken to a prison in Connecticut, where they are thrown into a grim dungeon, awaiting trial. The films focus then changes to Washington D.C., the campaign for re-election as U.S. President of Martin Van Buren and the abolitionists’ (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgard)attempt to encourage former President, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), to join their fight in freeing the imprisoned Africans.

At a preliminary hearing in a district court, the Africans are charged with “insurrection on the high seas”, and the case rapidly dissolves into chaos with conflicting claims of property ownership from Spain, the United States, the surviving officers of La Amistad, and the officers of the naval vessel responsible for capturing the slave-ship. It becomes clear the abolitionists will not be able to fight the case on moral grounds, they enlist the help of a young lawyer specialising in property law; Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey). The ensuing battle, between what is essentially right and wrong; tugs on the old heartstrings and you can’t help but get wrapped up in the trials and tribulations Baldwin and Cinque face as they battle to overcome a language barrier and work up a case to fight for the freedom of the Africans.

They manage to recruit a naval officer to translate for Cinque and through a series of flashbacks we are taken through the traumatic journey him and the other Africans have been through to get to this point. From being kidnapped and dragged away from his family, to the horrific conditions on the ship to Cuba, including frequent rape, horrific torture, and random executions carried out by the crew, including the deaths of fifty people deliberately drowned in order to save food. He also talks about the slave fortress he was taken to in Cuba where he was sold at a market that lead to the journey on La Amistad where the uprising took place. Being a massive girl I was drawn to verge of tears by Cinque’s journey and the elation when Judge Coglin dismisses all claims of ownership, rules that the Africans were captured illegally and authorises the United States to convey the Amistad Africans back to Africa at the expense of the nation.

And they all lived happily ever after…. If only things were that easy.

While the triumphant Africans celebrate their victory, a state dinner at the White House causes President Van Buren to overturn the ruling as he is threatened by a Southern Senator stating that should the government set a precedent for abolition by releasing the Amistad Africans, the South will have little choice but to go to war with the north. The threat may be thinly veiled at the dinner but it is clear. The Supreme Court was dominated by Southern slave-owning judges so surely the Africans would never be able to regain their freedom. The corrupt American judicial and political system strikes! Surely only one man will be able to save the day and the Africans now and they turn again to John Quincy Adams.  

Once the focus of film turns to the Supreme Court and Adams’ long, impassioned speech, some of the grittiness and rawness felt in the first part gives way to Hollywood polish and the need to tie everything up in a nice bow.  Adams argues that if Cinque were white and had rebelled against the British, America would have proclaimed him a hero. He also likened the Africans’ rebellion to gain their freedom to the Americans’ rebellion against their oppressors seventy years earlier. Arguing that condemning the Amistad Africans would render the principles and ideals of the Constitution of the United States worthless. This is the moment the whole film has been leading up to, will the President get his way and stave off the Civil War for a few more years or will good triumph over evil and gain the Africans the freedom they crave and deserve? It’s like an episode of X Factor waiting to hear the judgement announcement from Justice Joseph Story. All that’s missing from the declaration that the Supreme Court believes the Amistad Africans were illegally kidnapped from their homes in Africa, United States laws on slave ownership do not apply and the Africans were within their rights to use force to escape their confinement is a big booming power ballad.

I’m constantly fascinated by the atrocities of the past and the slave trade is a topic I venture back to every now and then. As a result I’m usually weary of films based on historical events that don’t have their tongue firmly wedged in their cheek but Amistad was different. I felt there was a little less “massaging of the truth” to find a watchable story. There are the obvious Hollywood hooks that separate a film with four Oscar nominations from a documentary and having gone through Cinque’s harrowing journey with him you’re appreciative of the emotional farewells and the montage like ending rounding everything up nicely. There are some discrepancies in the timeline of the film and insinuates that the Amistad trial caused the subsequent American Civil War. Although, I don’t doubt it may have had some effect on opinions and attitudes leading up to it, the war wasn’t until some twenty years later. But, despite this it is a moving, interesting look at a time I find it difficult to fully understand.

Laura Johnson

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