Amistad (film)

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Not to be confused with La Amistad.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Debbie Allen
Steven Spielberg
Colin Wilson
Written by David Franzoni
Starring Morgan Freeman
Anthony Hopkins
Djimon Hounsou
Matthew McConaughey
Nigel Hawthorne
Stellan Skarsgård
Harry Blackmun
Anna Paquin
Music by John Williams
Cinematography Janusz Kamiński
Edited by Michael Kahn
Distributed by DreamWorks Pictures
Release dates
  • December 10, 1997 (1997-12-10)
Running time
154 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $36 million
Box office $44,229,441

Amistad is a 1997 historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg based on the notable uprising in 1839 by newly abducted Mende tribesmen who took control of the ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. It became a United States Supreme Court case of 1841.

Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, and Matthew McConaughey had starring roles. David Franzoni's screenplay was based on the book Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (1987), by the historian Howard Jones.


In 1839, the schooner La Amistad is carrying Africans abducted from Sierra Leone and sold in Cuba into slavery. One of the slaves, Sengbe Pieh, most known by his slave name "Cinqué", initiates a rebellion on the ship. Most of the crew are killed. The Africans keep the ship's owners alive, believing they can navigate the vessel back to West Africa.

Six weeks later, the vessel is low on food and fresh water when they sight land. Unsure of their location, a group take a boat to shore to fetch fresh water. La Amistad is found by a United States military vessel; the Spaniards tricked the Africans, sailing up the Atlantic coast. Amistad is impounded. The Africans are imprisoned while a court determines ownership of the vessel and whether the slaves will be freed. Great Britain, the United States and Spain have prohibited the international slave trade, but the Spanish owners claim the slaves were born on a Cuban plantation and are thus legal domestic slaves.

In Washington, D.C., John Quincy Adams, former President and sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts, meets leading abolitionists Theodore Joadson, a freed slave, and activist Lewis Tappan. Intent on gaining the Amistad Africans' freedom, the men seek Adams' help with the court case. Adams claims he neither condemns nor condones slavery.

The current President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, is under pressure by the 11 year old Spanish Queen Isabella II, who demands compensation for the ship and the market value of the slaves. At a preliminary hearing, the Africans are charged with "insurrection on the high seas". The case has conflicting claims of property ownership by Spain, the United States, the Spanish owners of the slaves and of La Amistad, and the American captain and first mate of the US vessel that took the ship into custody, as laws of the sea entitle them to salvage rights, including the slaves. The abolitionists enlist the help of an attorney specializing in property law: Roger Sherman Baldwin.

Baldwin and the abolitionists, along with Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr., a professor of linguistics, try speaking with the Amistad Africans, but neither side can comprehend the other. As the hearings drag on, Baldwin and Joadson approach Adams for advice. Adams advises them that, in court, the side with the best story usually wins. Unable to tell Adams what their story is, they realize it is imperative they communicate with the Africans. At the city docks they find a black sailor in the Royal Navy, James Covey, who speaks an African language.

Using Covey as a translator, Baldwin and his companions speak with Cinquè. He is allowed to give his account, through Covey, in the courtroom. Cinquè claims that he was a farmer and family man, kidnapped by slave-hunters and taken to Lomboko, an illegal slave facility in Sierra Leone. He and hundreds of other captured Africans were loaded onto the transatlantic slave-ship Tecora. Upon arriving in Cuba, Cinquè was sold at a slave market and purchased by the owners of La Amistad.

District Attorney William S. Holabird and Secretary of State John Forsyth press their case for respecting property rights, dismissing Cinquè's story as fiction. While exploring La Amistad for evidence, Baldwin finds a notebook that gives accounts of their illegal slave-trading.

Presenting the notebook as evidence, Baldwin calls expert witnesses, including Captain Fitzgerald, a British naval officer assigned to patrol the West African coastline to enforce the British Empire's anti-slavery policies. Judge Coglin dismisses all claims of ownership of the Africans. He orders the arrest of the Amistad's owners and authorizes the United States to convey the Amistad Africans back to Africa.

Speaking with the Spanish Ambassador to Washington, Senator John C. Calhoun from South Carolina attacks President Van Buren; stressing the economic importance of slaves in the South, Calhoun suggests that if the government frees the Amistad Africans the South will go to war. President Van Buren orders the case appealed to the US Supreme Court, which is dominated by Southern slaveholder justices.

Joadson and Baldwin break the news to Cinquè. Needing a knowledgeable ally, Baldwin and Joadson meet again with John Quincy Adams. Aware that Cinquè refuses to talk to Baldwin, Adams invites Cinquè to his home. After speaking with him, Adams decides to assist the case.

At the Supreme Court, John Quincy Adams passionately defends the Africans in a long speech. Miraculously, all the judges except one are moved by the speech and they authorize the release of the Africans and their transportation to Africa, if they so wish. Cinquè bids farewell to his American companions.

British Royal Marines assault the Lomboko Slave Fortress, freeing Africans from its dungeons. With the fortress evacuated, Captain Fitzgerald orders it destroyed. Van Buren loses his re-election campaign. Cinquè and his fellow Africans return to Sierra Leone accompanied by James Covey. Cinquè finds his country in civil war and his wife and child missing, likely sold into slavery. Isabella II continues to argue with seven more US Presidents about the Amistad case over the next 30 years, but her hopes for "compensation" finally perish when the American Civil War erupts, ending slavery.


Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun appears in the film as Justice Joseph Story.


Actress and director Debbie Allen had run across some books about the mutiny on the ship, La Amistad, and brought the subject to HBO films, which chose to make a film adaption of the subject. She later presented the project to DreamWorks SKG to release the film, which agreed. Steven Spielberg, who wanted to stretch his artistic wings after making The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), was interested in directing it for DreamWorks, which he also co-founded as well. Spielberg was an unlikely person to tackle the Amistad story, since his previous picture about black characters, The Color Purple, had been badly received by the black community.

Filming took place in the Marble House mansion which was used for the exterior and interior court scenes. Filming moved to Sonalyst Studios, with the opening scene using a sound stage in Universal Studios was used. Production then went to Puerto Rico for the Africa scenes and the fortress building.

Post Production work was done rarely with Spielberg, due to his commitment to another DreamWorks film, Saving Private Ryan.


Soundtrack album by John Williams
Released December 9, 1997
Recorded 1997
Genre Score
Length 55:51
Label DreamWorks Records
John Williams chronology
Seven Years in Tibet
Saving Private Ryan
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 4/5 stars
Filmtracks 4/5 stars
Movie Wave 3/5 stars

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack[edit]

The lyrics from "Dry Your Tears, Afrika"m a 1967 poem by French-speaking Ivorian poet Bernard Binlin Dadié. The words are primarily in Mende, one of Sierra Leone's major languages.

Historical accuracy[edit]

The Supreme Court decision reversed District and Circuit decrees regarding Africans' conveyance back to Africa. They were to be deemed free, but the U.S. government could not take them back to Africa, as they had arrived on American soil as free people.[1]

Many academics, including Columbia University professor Eric Foner, have criticized Amistad for historical inaccuracy and the misleading characterizations of the Amistad case as a "turning point" in the American perspective on slavery. [2] Foner wrote:

The film version of Adams' closing speech before the Supreme Court and the court's decision bear no resemblance to the much longer historical versions; they are not even fair summaries.[3][4]

Several inaccuracies occur during the film's final scenes:

  • During the scene depicting the destruction of the Lomboko Fortress by a Royal Navy schooner, the vessel's captain refers to another officer as "ensign". This rank has never been used by the Royal Navy.[5]


Critical response[edit]

Amistad received mainly positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 76% based on reviews from 59 critics, with an average score of 6.9/10.[6] Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today summed up the feelings of many reviewers when she wrote: "as Spielberg vehicles go, Amistad — part mystery, action thriller, courtroom drama, even culture-clash comedy — lands between the disturbing lyricism of Schindler's List and the storybook artificiality of The Color Purple."[7] Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars, writing:

"Amistad," like Spielberg's "Schindler's List," is [...] about the ways good men try to work realistically within an evil system to spare a few of its victims. [...] "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. [...] 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.[8]

Box office[edit]

The film earned $44,229,441 at the box office in the United States, debuting at No. 5 on December 10, 1997.[9]


Amistad was nominated for Academy Awards in four categories: Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Original Dramatic Score (John Williams), Best Cinematography (Janusz Kamiński), and Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter).[10]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Award Best Cinematography Janusz Kamiński Nominated
Best Costume Design Ruth E. Carter Nominated
Best Original Dramatic Score John Williams Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Nominated
American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases Janusz Kamiński Nominated
Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design for a Feature Film Rick Carter (production designer),
Tony Fanning, Christopher Burian-Mohr, William James Teegarden (art directors)
Lauren Polizzi, John Berger, Paul Sonski (assistant art directors)
Nicholas Lundy, Hugh Landwehr (new york art directors)
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Nominated
Most Promising Actor Djimon Hounsou Nominated
Critics' Choice Movie Award Best Film Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Won
David di Donatello Best Foreign Film Steven Spielberg Nominated
Directors Guild of America Award Outstanding Directing – Feature Film Nominated
European Film Awards Achievement in World Cinema
(also for Good Will Hunting)
Stellan Skarsgård Won
Golden Globe Award Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Djimon Hounsou Nominated
Best Director Steven Spielberg Nominated
Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Anthony Hopkins Nominated
Grammy Award Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television John Williams Nominated
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture Djimon Hounsou Won
Outstanding Motion Picture Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture Morgan Freeman Won
Online Film Critics Society Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Nominated
Producers Guild of America Award Best Theatrical Motion Picture Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson Nominated
Political Film Society Awards Exposé Nominated
Satellite Award Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Djimon Hounsou Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay David Franzoni Nominated
Best Art Direction and Production Design Rick Carter Nominated
Best Cinematography Janusz Kamiński Won
Best Costume Design Ruth E. Carter Nominated
Best Director Steven Spielberg Nominated
Best Editing Michael Kahn Nominated
Best Film – Drama Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson Nominated
Best Original Score John Williams Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Award Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role Anthony Hopkins Nominated
Southeastern Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actor 2nd place

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Story, Joseph. "The United States, Appellants, v. The Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, Her Tackle, Apparel, and Furniture, Together With Her Cargo, and the Africans Mentioned and Described in the Several Libels and Claims, Appellees", Supreme Court of the United States 40 U.S. 518; 10 L. Ed. 826 (January 1841 Term), Cornell University Law School. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  2. ^ Foner, Eric. "The Amistad Case in Fact and Film", History Matters. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  3. ^ "The United States, Appellants, v. The Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad...".
  4. ^ "JQA Adams Before the Supreme Court", History Central.
  5. ^ British Royal Navy ranks (including relevant time period) "Officer Ranks in the Royal Navy", Royal Naval Museum. Accessed February 15, 2012.
  6. ^ "Amistad Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 2011-02-15. 
  7. ^ Wloszczyna, Susan. "Amistad review", USA Today. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 12, 1997). "Amistad :: :: Reviews". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved Dec 8, 2011. 
  9. ^ "Amistad". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-12-08. 
  10. ^ "Academy Awards: Amistad". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-12-08. 

External links[edit]