US, 1997, 155 minutes, Colour.
Matthew Mc Conaughey, Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Stellan Starsgaard, Jeremy Northam, Nigel Hawthorne, Pete Postlethwaite, Anna Paquin, David Paymer, Paul Guilfoyle, Tomas Milian, Chiwitel Ejiofor. Arliss Howard.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
A cargo of slaves overpower the crew and take over the ship, La Amistad. They set sail for home in Africa. However, the tides and winds drive them to the Long Island shore where they are arrested and taken to a New Haven prison.
It is 1839. Martin Van Buren is president. He is pressured into adopting political positions to condemn the slaves. The debate in the courts concerns the ownership of the slaves: the contenders include the Spanish government, the English shipowners, the crew of the ship.
In prison, the slaves discover the Bible and see their plight parallelled by that of Jesus. Meanwhile abolitionists, led by African American, Theodore Joadson, and young lawyer, Roger Baldwin, campaign for the slaves' freedom. Protesters stand guard praying. Baldwin is appointed for their defence but he is inexperienced and the judges are political appointees who are expected to find against the slaves. However, Judge Coglin, a closet Catholic, goes to a church to pray and decides in favour of the slaves.
Court proceedings continue. Finally, the slaves are defended by former president John Quincy Adams who delivers a rousing speech based on the American Constitution.
Amistad is a dramatic lesson in historical ethics. It is based on events in 1839 where slaves from Sierra Leone overcame the crew of the ship, La Amistad, and massacred them. Captured by an American ship, they were tried three times in the American courts. Abolitionists supported the slaves. Martin Van Buren, standing for re-election, manipulated the courts to convict the slaves. Amistad is Steven Spielberg's clear and heartfelt plea for black Americans just as in Schindler's List he pleaded for Holocaust victims.
This time, however, there is much more of a preaching tone to the screenplay which may alienate some sympathetic audiences who would be moved by more direct storytelling. The screenplay writer is David Franzoni, one of the writers of Gladiator. In contrast to the speechmaking, the flashbacks to the capture of the slaves and their horrendous voyage wield a powerful impact.
The movie relies on the courtroom drama, especially the moving defence spoken by Anthony Hopkins who is excellent as the elderly John Quincy Adams. Amistad is a most worthy film and dramatises the experience of the African slaves, revealing a history that must continually be acknowledged so that a just future can be built on the past.
Of particular Christian interest is the sequence where two slaves look at the drawings in a bible and talk about the story of Jesus. They identify with him and his sufferings, showing us how the African slaves so readily became Christians and developed a spirituality heard in the 'Negro Spirituals'. There is quite a deal of crucifix imagery in the film, Spielberg presenting Christian belief and symbols more powerfully than Christians sometimes do themselves.
Spielberg went on to direct Lincoln (2012). Chiwitel Ejiofor was nominated for Oscar Best Actor for 12 Years a Slave which won Best Film for 2013. Amistad and 12 Years a Slave should be seen together.
1. The impact in the 1990s? African- Americans? Slavery? Before the Civil War? For American audiences, African audiences, world audiences?
2. The title, the irony of the name of the ship, Freedom?
3. The career of Steven Spielberg, his serious films, The Colour Purple, Empire of the Son, Schindler’s List, Lincoln?
4. The 1839 setting, American society at the time, the United States, the gap between North and South because of slavery? The possibilities of civil war? The town, the prison, the court room, the church? The president in the streets, in his offices? Washington DC, Adams’ home in Massachusetts? The musical score?
5. The opening, dark, the ship, cramped, the slaves, Cinque, unlocking the chains, the uprising, the battle, the killings? Taking over the ship? Language issues? The pilot, taking the ship West? The stars? The surreal scene with the ship passing the people at dinner?
6. Cinque, the boats to shore, the United States, the Navy, the capture of the slaves? Their being marched through the town, in chains, imprisoned? Cinque and his leadership? His deputy?
7. The court, the prosecutor, the accusation about the massacre? The lawyer for the slave-owners in the claim from Cuba? The scenes with the Queen of Spain, young, her letter, her possessions? The American naval officers in the claiming salvage and sea property? The judge, listening to everyone? Baldwin, his speech, the issues, the documents, searching the ship, findings the papers that proved his case?
8. Van Buren, politics, in the carriage, with his adviser, race issues, the slaves, his preoccupation about re-election? His assistant and ideas? In the streets, greeting the crowds, kissing the babies? In his office, the officials? Legal aspects? His being able to appoint a different judge? His belief that he had a hold on him? The judge and the tradition of Catholicism and his keeping it quiet?
9. Joadson, his role, ex-slave, getting freedom, spending his life for abolition? His shipping company? With Tappan, abolitionists? The discussions with Baldwin? Wary about him? Impressed in the court?
10. Baldwin, his background, law, his manner of talking, promoting himself, salary, ideas, the slaves as property and this kind of issue and the courts? Speaking Spanish and the slaves not understanding, disproving the coming from Cuba? Finding the documents in the ship? The Portugese slavers, producing the papers in court?
11. Cinque, the group, his leadership, his angers, the American translator and his inabilities? The subtitles for what the Africans were saying? Baldwin communicating by gestures, getting them to stand up, the sand at the map, enabling trust? Their decision to trust?
12. John Adams, asleep in the congress, his retort to the politicians? The background of his father being President, his being President? His age, a touch doddery, with the flowers, asking about the seasons, not taking on the case? Joadson visiting him at his home, his working the garden, listening, not wanting to be an abolitionist, his curiosity, asking about ‘the story’, Joadson’s story and his life? The emphasis on who the slaves were?
13. Baldwin and the class from the translator? Learning the language? Communication? Going through the town with words to find people from the tribe? Most people not understanding? The ensign and his response?
14. Ensign Covey, his understanding the words, the tribe, his history as a slave, freedom, as a person, taking on the job, present in the court, the translation work and his sensitivity, involvement, joy at the result? His continued presence at the Supreme Court?
15. Dear assertion of the flashbacks, simply Cinque and his wife, the ivory piece, trapped in the net, taken as a slave, the slave castle, the brutality, the boats, the treatment, the chains, the lack of food, the birth of the baby, people put on a chain with heavy stones and drowned, the later records and the loss of weight on the ship, the mother and the baby going overboard? Cuba, the auctions?
16. The judge, his Catholic background, expected to do the President’s wish, going to the church, praying the I Confess, going to the court, hearing the case? His attentiveness? His listening? The judgement?
17. The abolitionists, with their Bibles, singing Amazing Grace?
18. The prisoners, looking at the Bible, the sketched illustrations, the story of Jesus, their interest, developing the parallels, his working wonders, walking on the water, the arrest, Cinque thinking had done something wrong and his friend pointing out that they had not? Calvary, the resurrection and ascension? Images of hope? The focus on the three crosses – and the prisoners walking to the court, the three masts of the, Amistad like the crosses on Calvary?
19. The hearing, the prosecutor and his spurning of the story of the enslavement? Joadson, his presence? Tappan and the court? Baldwin and his speech, covering all the possibilities for the ownership of the slaves: the Cuban slave owners, the British the American officers, the Spanish Ambassador? The judge and his summation, Justice, Freedom, human rights? The slaves beginning to comprehend? The general rejoicing? The representatives of the President, Forsyth and going to the president, and their dismay?
20. The President, at the dinner, his advisers, the former Vice President to Adams, John Colquhoun, his negative attitude, threats to the president who looked on grimly, the other guests listening, the summation about the attitudes towards north and south, rich and poorer, the South subservient to the north, the issue of slavery, the prospect of the Civil War?
21. Van Buren and his discussions, fears, advice, the prospect of civil war, the influence of Colquhoun? His decisions?
22. The victory, the disappointment, Cinque and his reactions?
23. Joadson and his talking with Tappan after the decision, Tappan and his proposing that they should be seen as martyrs? Judson disgusted with him?
24. Baldwin and his decision to write the letter to Adams? Adams receiving it, reading it? Crumpling it? Baldwin and his bringing Cinque and the translator?
Adams and the tour of the garden, the plants, Cinque’s, the African violet and its use in the case?
25. Adams and the discussions, the strategies, the documents, Cinque and the translator?
26. The case in this Supreme Caught, the Judges, solemnity, Van Buren and the others mocking Adams and his age, going to sleep…?
27. Adams’ speech, the rhetoric, the issues, the ownership, disdain of the prosecutor’s case, pleading, the significance of the decision? The judgement
with only one dissension?
28. The significance of this case, for the 1840s, the decade before the Civil War, slavery, ownership, freedom? One of the bases for the United States?