Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Steven Spielberg|
|Produced by||Debbie Allen
|Written by||David Franzoni|
|Music by||John Williams|
|Editing by||Michael Kahn|
|Distributed by||DreamWorks Pictures|
|Running time||154 minutes|
Amistad is a 1997 historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg based on the notable mutiny in 1839 by newly captured Mende slaves 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.
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (April 2014)|
The schooner La Amistad is carrying Africans captured 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 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 appealled 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. The court authorizes 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.
- Morgan Freeman as Theodore Joadson
- Nigel Hawthorne as Martin Van Buren
- Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams
- Djimon Hounsou as Sengbe Pieh / Joseph Cinqué
- Matthew McConaughey as Roger Sherman Baldwin
- David Paymer as Secretary of State John Forsyth
- Pete Postlethwaite as William S. Holabird
- Stellan Skarsgård as Lewis Tappan
- Razaaq Adoti as Yamba
- Abu Bakaar Fofanah as Fala
- Anna Paquin as Queen Isabella II
- Tomas Milian as Calderon
- Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ens. James Covey
- Derrick Ashong as Buakei
- Geno Silva as Ruiz
- John Ortiz as Montes
- Ralph Brown as Lieutenant Gedney
- Darren E. Burrows as Lieutenant Meade
- Allan Rich as Judge Juttson
- Paul Guilfoyle as Attorney
- Peter Firth as Captain Fitzgerald
- Xander Berkeley as Hammond
- Jeremy Northam as Judge Coglin
- Arliss Howard as John C. Calhoun
- Austin Pendleton as Professor Gibbs
- Pedro Armendáriz Jr. as General Espartero
- Harry Blackmun as Justice Joseph Story
David Sterritt wrote that Spielberg saw "great potential" in the Amistad story and decided to take it on, although he had been criticized by the black community for his adaptation of The Color Purple (1985).
The idea of filming the Amistad affair came from actress and director Debbie Allen, who had run across some books on the subject. After running into fund-raising problems, she brought the project to Spielberg, who wanted to stretch his artistic wings after making The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and was looking for a prestige production to direct for DreamWorks SKG, the studio he'd recently co-founded. 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, its eleven Oscar® nominations (no wins) notwithstanding. "I got such a bollocking for The Color Purple," he told a New York Times interviewer, "I thought, I'll never do that again." But he saw great potential in the Amistad story and decided to take it on, even though his crowded schedule meant doing pre-production while DreamWorks was still being launched and post-production while 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998) was before the camera.
|Soundtrack album by John Williams|
|Released||December 9, 1997|
|John Williams chronology|
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
|1.||"Dry Your Tears, Afrika" (vocals performed by Pamela Dillard)||4:18|
|2.||"Sierra Leone, 1839 and the Capture of Cinque" (vocals performed by Pamela Dillard)||3:39|
|3.||"Crossing the Atlantic" (vocals performed by Pamela Dillard)||3:21|
|5.||"Cinque's Memories of Home"||2:35|
|7.||"The Long Road to Justice"||3:16|
|8.||"July 4, 1839"||4:01|
|9.||"Mr. Adams Takes the Case"||7:15|
|10.||"La Amistad Remembered"||5:08|
|11.||"The Liberation of Lomboko"||4:09|
|13.||"Going Home" (vocals performed by Pamela Dillard)||2:02|
|14.||"Dry Your Tears, Afrika (Reprise)" (vocals performed by Pamela Dillard)||3:37|
The lyrics from "Dry Your Tears, Afrika" (including the reprise) are from a 1967 poem by French-speaking Ivorian poet Bernard Binlin Dadié. The words are primarily in Mende, one of Sierra Leone's major languages.
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.
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.  Foner wrote:
|“||In fact, the Amistad case revolved around the Atlantic slave trade — by 1840 outlawed by international treaty — and had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery as a 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.||”|
|“||Amistad's problems go far deeper than such anachronisms as President Martin Van Buren campaigning for re-election 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.||”|
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.
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. 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." 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.
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).
- United States v. The Amistad, an 1841 U.S. Supreme Court case concerning a slave rebellion on the ship
- List of films featuring slavery
- Supreme Court of the United States in fiction
- Trial movies
- Sterritt, David. Joemar Acosta is one of the cast also. "Amistad", Turner Classic Movies. Accessed December 8, 2011.
- 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.
- Foner, Eric. "The Amistad Case in Fact and Film", History Matters. Accessed December 8, 2011.
- "The United States, Appellants, v. The Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad...".
- "JQA Adams Before the Supreme Court", History Central.
- British Royal Navy ranks (including relevant time period) "Officer Ranks in the Royal Navy", Royal Naval Museum. Accessed February 15, 2012.
- "Amistad Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 2011-02-15.
- Wloszczyna, Susan. "Amistad review", USA Today. Accessed December 8, 2011.
- Ebert, Roger (December 12, 1997). "Amistad :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved Dec 8, 2011.
- "Amistad". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-12-08.
- "Academy Awards: Amistad". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-12-08.
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Amistad (film)|
- Amistad at the Internet Movie Database
- Amistad at AllMovie
- Amistad at Box Office Mojo
- Amistad at Rotten Tomatoes
- 2 speeches from the movie in text, audio, video from American Rhetoric
- Amistad at Virtual History