Hollywood films about a certain period in the American or global history always face a difficult decision – whether to follow historical accuracy and neglect visual and emotional aspects or make a successful film that will raise high box office and entertain the audience. There are very few Hollywood historical films which do not have any inconsistencies or mistakes. Amistad (1997) directed and produced by Stephen Spielberg proves this statement. This movie has some significant historical fallacies, but at the same time, it effectively deals with such important themes as slavery, racism, and human sufferings. The current paper analyzes the actual historical events described in Amistad and explores the role of the film in the portrayal of slavery in the United States.
The film starts with a scene where the audience gets acquainted with Cinque, an African that was caught by slave traders and now is transported on a Spanish ship. He tries to take a large nail out of its place to free all slaves from fetters. When he succeeds, Africans kill almost all crew members, except two Spaniards who were told to sail back to Africa. However, these Spaniards deceived Africans, and they come to the shores of America. The ship is stopped by the American Navy, and all Africans are put in prison. Later, it turns out that there are three sides that claim Africans to be their property – the Spanish crown, the two Spaniards from the ship and the officers from the American Navy who believe that these slaves would be a sufficient reward for their efforts to save the ship. At the same time, abolitionist Tappan and his black associate Joadson (played by Morgan Freeman) hire a lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Allen & Spielberg, 1997). He almost manages to persuade the jury to free the Africans, but the Secretary of State and the President change the judge. They are sure that this new judge will declare the Africans to be the property of the Spanish crown, but the judge is impressed with the defense and the stories of the victims and, as a result, set them free. The President, who fears that this case would cause the Civil War, takes it to the Supreme Court. At this point, the ex-president John Quincy Adams (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins) agrees to help the Africans and Baldwin, although he had refused to take part in this case before. The Supreme Court judges are persuaded with his speech and the facts the defense provided and declare that the Africans are free to go home. The film ends with a scene where the Africans from La Amistad are standing on board the ship and watching the approaching shores of Africa (Allen & Spielberg, 1997).
This film is based on a true story that started in July 1839. Known as United States v. The Amistad, the case was finally decided by the Supreme Court in 1841 in favor of the Mende people who represented the majority of the captives. The so-called Amistad Committee organized and headed by Tappan offered them a temporary home in Connecticut while they raise money to fund their return to Africa. In 1842, along with several Christian missionaries, the surviving 39 Africans sailed to their homeland.
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Despite the fact that this film depicts the real events happened during the revolt at La Amistad and the subsequent events, it has numerous historical fallacies. Many historians claim that Spielberg significantly changed the ideological atmosphere of those events and altered some of the basic episodes in this story (Foner, n.d.). Even the major historical consultant for this movie Clifton Johnson argues, “What filmmakers call dramatic license, I call historical error” (quoted in Osagie, 2003, p. 122). Johnson also states that Spielberg managed to attract national attention to the subject that he tried to popularize in vain for about 40 years, but would “spend the rest of his life correcting errors” (quoted in Osagie, 2003, p. 122).
One of the most important drawbacks of Spielberg’s movie is the way the Africans are portrayed and how they are contrasted to the white Americans. Although the main theme of this film is the horrible nature of slavery, the approach chosen by the filmmakers is quite controversial. Cinque and other Africans are shown as savage barbarians who are unable to understand Americans in both literal and metaphoric sense. There are many scenes when the captives from La Amistad dance and sing around the bonfire that is a quite stereotypical image of native African tribes. Moreover, such cases lack historical support and are not proven by any primary sources (Osagie, 2003). Another controversial moment is also related to the language which the Africans use in the film. At first, Spielberg thought to use subtitles, but later someone argued that it would negatively affect the popularity of the film, and this idea was abandoned. Foner (n.d.) writes, “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.” Therefore, the Africans appear to be metaphorically “muted” in the film as their speech could be understood only by those who speak Mende language.
The film shows a number of significant historical errors. One of the most significant is the portrayal of abolitionist Tappan. He is shown as a religious fanatic for whom the abolition of the slave trade is much more important than the lives of the captors. However, there is no historical evidence indicating such representation of this person. He exerted every effort to help the Mende people both during the trial and after it, and none had ever mentioned that he could support the idea that the martyr death of the Africans from La Amistad would be better than their release (Osagie, 2003). In addition, he never had any disagreements with Baldwin as it was shown in the film. In fact, the filmmakers make Baldwin and Adams more important participants in these events than Tappan that contradicts the historical reality. Both Adams and Cinque in their letters to Tappan acknowledge his primary role in this process (Osagie, 2003).
Another crucial flaw in Amistad is that the release of the captors is explained by the growing moral consciousness of Americans, even those who supported slavery (for example, most of the Supreme Court judges). In reality, the Amistad case was much more complex. Foner (n.d.) emphasizes, “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.” He also adds, “A majority of the Amistad justices, after all, were still on the Supreme Court in 1857 when [they] prohibited Congress from barring slavery from the Western territories and proclaimed that blacks… had ‘no rights which a white man is bound to respect’” (Foner, n.d.). Legally, the defense managed to win this case because of controversies in the admiralty law and international treaties. Therefore, the focus on the growing understanding of the unacceptability of slavery in the United States is historically controversial.
However, despite all controversies and historical errors, Amistad is worth watching. It is necessary to draw a clear dividing line between the real events, the information about which should be received from credible academic sources and the inspiring fiction story beautifully told in this movie. Spielberg draws public attention to the issues of slavery and racism that is quite rarely done in Hollywood. He sacrifices historical accuracy in details, but the filmic representation of general tendencies of the Atlantic slave trade at the end of the 19th century is quite persuasive. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is the depiction of the Middle Passage experiences of the Africans. It is believed that more than two million of Africans died only during the Middle Passage voyage, and the figures are estimated to be higher when referring to the death of the captors in Africa and at the places of their destination (Osagie, 2003). The filmmakers draw attention to the slave trade highlighting the fact that slavery should not be understood only as the forced labor in the United States or other countries. It is a long chain of horrible experiences that started in Africa, in the slave fortresses as the one shown in Amistad, and continue via the Middle Passage to the countries where slavery was legal. The movie succeeds on the basis of two important themes, suffering and survival. The way in which these two crucial concepts are represented mark Amistad as unique, so watching this film, but not taking it as a reliable historical source, would be a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.
To conclude, Amistad tells a story of the Africans that became the victims of the extensive Atlantic slave trade. The movie was based on the true story, and many of the film characters were real persons. This film has a number of significant historical inaccuracies and errors referring to the role of the black captors, representation of legal issues and other aspects, but in general the filmmakers were quite successful in portraying the suffering of the captors and the cruelty and inhuman nature of slavery in general. Amistad reminds to the audience about the horrors of the slave trade and prevents any discrimination and oppression in the future.