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Amistad (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Written byDavid Franzoni
Produced by
CinematographyJanusz Kamiński
Edited byMichael Kahn
Music byJohn Williams
Distributed byDreamWorks Pictures
Release date
  • December 10, 1997 (1997-12-10)
Running time
154 minutes
CountryUnited States
  • English
  • Mende
  • Spanish
Budget$39 million
Box office$58.3 million[1]

Amistad is a 1997 American historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the events in 1839 aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, during which Mende tribesmen abducted for the slave trade managed to gain control of their captors' ship off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by the Washington, a U.S. revenue cutter. The case was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841.

Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, and Matthew McConaughey starred, along with Djimon Hounsou in his breakout role as Cinqué; Pete Postlethwaite, Nigel Hawthorne, and a then unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor appeared in supporting roles.

The film received largely positive critical reviews and grossed over $58 million worldwide.


The schooner La Amistad is transporting black slaves off the coast of the Spanish colony of Cuba in 1839. A captive, Cinqué, leads an uprising against the crew, most of whom are killed. Two navigators, Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz, are spared on condition they help sail the ship to Africa. The Spaniards betray them and instead sail into U.S. waters, where the ship is stopped by the U.S. revenue cutter Washington, and the mutineers are arrested.

A complicated legal battle ensues over the slaves. United States Attorney William S. Holabird brings charges of piracy and murder against them. Those charges are dismissed in a criminal case because the killings occurred outside of United States territorial waters.

A civil case then follows, with the Amistad Africans being claimed as property by Montes and Ruiz, and as salvage by two officers from the Washington. The Spanish government of Queen Isabella II[a] intervenes in support of Montes and Ruiz, under the Treaty of 1795, also known as Pinckney's Treaty. To avoid a diplomatic incident, President Martin Van Buren directs his Secretary of State John Forsyth to support the Spanish claim. Meanwhile, abolitionist Lewis Tappan and his black associate Theodore Joadson (a former slave), resolve to help the captives. They approach the brilliant lawyer, former U.S. president and serving U.S. representative John Quincy Adams, but he is reluctant to get involved. They instead hire the young and eccentric attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin.

Baldwin, unable to converse directly with his clients due to the language barrier, suspects the slaves are not Cubans but Africans who have been kidnapped and transported illegally as part of the banned transatlantic slave trade. He and Joadson search La Amistad and find documents which prove the captives were kidnapped from Sierra Leone and transported across the Atlantic aboard the Portuguese slave ship Tecora before being transferred to La Amistad in Havana. The judge is impressed and signals his intention to dismiss the U.S. and Spanish governments' case and release the captives.

To preclude this possibility, Van Buren replaces the judge with a younger man, Coglin, who he believes will be easier to manipulate. Joadson seeks advice from Adams, who tells him that court cases are usually won by the side with the best 'story'. Baldwin and Joadson recruit freedman James Covey as a translator, enabling Cinqué to testify directly before the court. He describes how he was kidnapped from his home, and the horrors of the Middle Passage. Baldwin calls Captain Fitzgerald of the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron to corroborate Cinqué's testimony. He speculates that the captives were taken aboard the Tecora at the notorious slave fort Lomboko. Under cross-examination, Fitzgerald admits there is no direct evidence of Lomboko's existence. As tension rises, Cinqué abruptly stands and demands, "Give us, us free!". Moved by Cinqué's emotion, Judge Coglin rules that the Africans are to be released, and that Montes and Ruiz are to be arrested and charged with illegal slave-trading.

Under pressure from Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who represents the slave-holding interests of the American South, Van Buren appeals the case to the Supreme Court. Baldwin and Joadson visit Adams again, and after meeting Cinqué he agrees to represent the Africans before the Supreme Court. Adams' impassioned and eloquent speech convinces the court to confirm the judgement and release the Africans.

Lomboko is stormed by Royal Marines under the command of Captain Fitzgerald, and the slaves held there are freed. Fitzgerald orders the ship's cannon to destroy the fortress, and dictates a sardonic letter to Forsyth saying that he was correct — the infamous slave fort does not (now) exist.

Van Buren is discredited by his failure to prevent the release of the Africans, and loses the 1840 election to William Henry Harrison. The Spanish government continues to press its claim for compensation up until the American Civil War.

The captions say that Cinqué returns to Africa, but is unable to reunite with his family due to civil war in Sierra Leone.



In casting the role of Joseph Cinqué, Spielberg had strict requirements that the actor must have an impressive physical appearance, be able to command authority and be of West African descent. The actor who secured the role would also need to learn the Mende accent spoken by Cinqué.[2] Cuba Gooding Jr. was offered the role but turned it down and later regretted it.[3][4] Dustin Hoffman was offered a role but turned it down,[5][6] while Will Smith and musician Seal both tried to secure the part. Despite open auditions being held in London, Paris and Sierra Leone, the role remained unfilled with just nine weeks before filming was due to start. Spielberg was prepared to delay production by up to two years if he could not find the right actor.[7] After considering over 150 actors, Spielberg watched the audition tape of relatively unknown actor Djimon Hounsou reading a speech from the film's script. After Hounsou read the speech in English and further learned it in Mende, Spielberg was impressed enough to cast him in the role of Cinqué.[8] Hounsou auditioned with the hope of landing just a small role[7] and said he was not aware of the story before securing the role. He read numerous books on the rebellion and subsequent trial to acquaint himself with events portrayed in the film.[2]

Morgan Freeman was selected for the role of Theodore Joadson on a first-come basis, who was a fictional character in the film representing the composite of African American abolitionists in the 19th century. Spike Lee, an actor and film director, was reportedly offered the role but declined it.[9] Freeman had been offered the role of Ensign James Covey, but he chose to play Joadson instead after he realized that the role was too young for him. Chiwetel Ejiofor made his film debut in the role of Covey, having auditioned for it while playing Othello at the Royal National Theatre in London, while he was a student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.[10]

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun made a cameo appearance in the film as Justice Joseph Story. Blackmun was honored to appear in the movie, acknowledging it was a "significant film about our nation's struggle with slavery".[11]


Djimon Hounsou had a short period of just 10 days to learn the Mende dialect for his role as Joseph Cinqué; despite both the dialect and Hounsou's native Benin dialect being from West Africa, there were few similarities. Hounsou struggled to learn all his lines in Mende and resorted to phonetically reciting some of them, except for the most important scenes where he made sure to understand every word spoken. Hounsou expressed that being restrained in real chains and shackles during filming was among the most challenging aspects of the movie, causing him to contemplate quitting on the first day.[2]


Filming locations included Mystic Seaport, which doubled as New Haven. Film crews spent four days there and employed around 300 extras[12] Numerous scenes were filmed in Newport, Rhode Island. Many courthouse scenes were shot in the Old Colony House, while the prison scenes were shot within Fort Adams.

During the scene where the characters Joseph Cinqué and John Quincy Adams meet for the first time, actors Hounsou and Hopkins "struggled through take after take, trying not to cry", and had to be continually told by Spielberg to hold back the tears as it wasn't appropriate for that moment in the scene. Hopkins reportedly wept once the scene was completed.[7]


The entire film was completed in 51 days and cost around $39 million (~$83.4 million in 2023).[12] Prior to release, a legal battle ensued between Spielberg's DreamWorks Pictures and novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud, the latter who claimed that specific details from her 1989 novel Echo of Lions were lifted for the screenplay. Chase-Riboud filed a $10 million lawsuit of copyright infringement.[13]



Amistad: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Film score by
ReleasedDecember 9, 1997
StudioSony Pictures Studios
GenreFilm score
ProducerJohn Williams
John Williams chronology
Seven Years in Tibet
Amistad: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Saving Private Ryan
Professional ratings
Review scores
Movie Wave

The musical score for Amistad was composed by John Williams. A soundtrack album was released on December 9, 1997, by DreamWorks Records.[14]

Historical accuracy[edit]

Professor Howard Jones's 1987 book Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy was cited by the producers as one of numerous sources used for research during the script's development.[15]

Many academics, including Columbia University professor Eric Foner, have criticized Amistad for the misleading characterization of the Amistad case as a "turning point" in the American perspective on slavery.[16]

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 impending Civil War, which lay 20 years in the future.[16]

Elmer P. Martin Jr. argued that the film missed an opportunity to mention contemporary events like the Creole case, a similar slave revolt on an American ship in 1841. Martin noted that some antebellum abolitionists Frederick Douglass found it "strange and perverse" that some of the defenders of the Amistad slaves were willing to excuse the "similar traffic carried on with the same motives and purposes" in American waters.[17]

Some critics, like historian Eric McKitrick, felt that the fictional character of Joadson, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman, softened the film's portrayal of early American race relations: "No such person of the bearing and dignity depicted by Mr. Freeman would have been allowed to exist in the America of 1840." However, Richard S. Newman drew a connection between Joadson and Black reformers like James Forten, an early abolitionist who influenced white reformers like Tappan and William Lloyd Garrison.[18]


Critical response[edit]

Amistad received mainly positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 78% based on reviews from 67 critics, with an average score of 6.9/10. Its consensus reads, "Heartfelt without resorting to preachiness, Amistad tells an important story with engaging sensitivity and absorbing skill."[19] Metacritic calculated an average score of 63 out of 100 based on 23 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[20] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A−" on an A+ to F scale.[21]

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."[22] 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.[23]

In 2014, the movie was one of several discussed by Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic in an article concerning white savior narratives in film, calling it "sanctimonious drivel."[24]

Morgan Freeman is very proud of the movie, having said, "I loved the film. I really did. I had a moment of err, during the killings. I thought that was a little over-wrought. But [Spielberg] wanted to make a point and I understood that."[25]

Box office[edit]

The film debuted at No. 3 on Wednesday, December 10, 1997. It earned $44,229,441 at the box office in the United States.[26]

Awards and honors[edit]

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).[27]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Award Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Nominated
Best Cinematography Janusz Kamiński Nominated
Best Costume Design Ruth E. Carter Nominated
Best Original Dramatic Score John Williams 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

Other cultural significance[edit]

The United States Department of State and the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) collaborated in 1998 to screen Amistad as part of an effort to increase "cultural diplomacy" built around shared national histories of racial struggles in the United States and Cuba.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Queen Isabella II of Spain was the nominal head of the Spanish government, but at the time was a minor and living in exile in Rome with her mother Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies while Spain was under the liberal regency of Baldomero Espartero and under the government of prime minister Antonio González, 1st Marquess of Valdeterrazo.


  1. ^ "Amistad (1997)". The Numbers. Nash Information Services, LLC. Retrieved February 19, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c "'Amistad' gives African actor his big break". The Boston Globe. December 12, 1997. p. 100.
  3. ^ "Cuba Gooding Pinpoints Where It Might Have All Gone Wrong". 15 March 2006.
  4. ^ "Wow! Cuba Gooding, Jr. Turned Down Steven Spielberg | Larry King Now | Ora.TV". YouTube. 17 February 2016. Archived from the original on 2021-11-17.
  5. ^ "Dustin Hoffman: Facing down my demons". TheGuardian.com. 14 December 2012.
  6. ^ Anita M. Busch (January 6, 1997). "McConaughey near 'Amistad'". Variety.com. Retrieved October 23, 2023.
  7. ^ a b c "Honsou". San Francisco Examiner. December 14, 1997. p. 305.
  8. ^ "Hounsou early career". The Daily Telegraph. February 21, 1998. p. 216.
  9. ^ "A Star at 60". The Atlanta Constitution. December 10, 1997. p. 37.
  10. ^ "Britain's Ejiofor makes his mark". Detroit Free Press. August 8, 2003. p. 42.
  11. ^ "Blackmum gets in act for Spielberg movie". Chicago Tribune. March 28, 1997. p. 2.
  12. ^ a b "In 'Amistad' Film, Mystic Stands In For New Haven". Hartford Courant. December 3, 1997. p. 57.
  13. ^ "Legal wrangles could delay 'Amistad'". The Record. December 7, 1997. p. 193.
  14. ^ "Amistad Soundtrack (John Williams)". Soundtrack.Net. Autotelics. Retrieved December 20, 2015.
  15. ^ "A Historian Goes to Hollywood: The Spielberg Touch | Perspectives on History | AHA".
  16. ^ a b Foner, Eric. "The Amistad Case in Fact and Film", History Matters. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  17. ^ Martin, Elmer (Dec 30, 1997). "'Amistad' omits some truths that must be told". The Baltimore Sun.
  18. ^ Newman, Richard (Spring 2000). "Not the Only Story in "Amistad": The Fictional Joadson and the Real James Forten". Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. 67 (2): 218–239. JSTOR 27774258. Retrieved 17 April 2023.
  19. ^ "Amistad Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. 10 December 1997. Retrieved 2022-12-01.
  20. ^ "Amistad Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved February 28, 2022.
  21. ^ "Home". CinemaScore. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  22. ^ Wloszczyna, Susan. "Amistad review", USA Today. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  23. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 12, 1997). "Amistad :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on October 20, 2012. Retrieved Dec 8, 2011.
  24. ^ Berlatsky, Noah (January 17, 2014). "12 Years a Slave: Yet Another Oscar-Nominated 'White Savior' Story". The Atlantic. Retrieved May 14, 2014.
  25. ^ "Morgan Freeman". TheGuardian.com. 14 July 2000.
  26. ^ "Amistad". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved December 8, 2011.
  27. ^ "Academy Awards: Amistad". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved 2011-12-08.
  28. ^ Davis, Stuart (2023). Sanctions as War: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy. Haymarket Books. p. 66. ISBN 978-1-64259-812-4. OCLC 1345216431.

External links[edit]