Academic journal article MELUS

Black Misery, White Guilt and Amistad

Academic journal article MELUS

Black Misery, White Guilt and Amistad

Article excerpt

Black Misery, White Guilt and Amistad, a film produced by Debbie Allen; directed by Stephen Spielberg; written by David Franzoni.

Amistad, the movie about the 1839 shipboard slave revolt and subsequent legal trial, opened to tempered favorable reviews from film critics, African American filmmakers, and scholars in the field of African American studies. Indeed, it has sparked not only heated debate about the nature of slavery in America, but also interest in the Amistad story. To date, a number of other artistic productions based on this historical event are scheduled to debut, most notably, the Chicago Lyric Opera's world premiere of a new opera Amistad, written by Anthony Davis and directed by George C. Wolfe. Notwithstanding the significance of other productions, this movie, more than anything else, has generated intensely positive and negative feedback. While most reviewers agree that director Steven Spielberg maintained, as much as possible, historical veracity to the actual Amistad case, they differ on his misrepresentation of the attorney, Roger Sherman Baldwin, who was a distinguished member of the Connecticut bar and not the ingenuous young legal nobody portrayed in the film; the fictionalized Black abolitionist character portrayed by Morgan Freeman; the emphasis on former president John Quincy Adams's humanitarian defense of the "Amistad Africans;" the allusions to Christianity, which one of the Africans discovers through looking at pictorial depictions of Jesus amongst His people in the Bible; the bonding between Cinque and Adams, through, first, Adams's cultivation of African violets, and later, after the victory before the Supreme Court, the Black Power handshake; the depiction of white abolitionists as hypocrites; and whether Spielberg, a white director, should have made the movie in the first place or yielded to any one of a number of excellent African American film directors.

These caveats, however, fail to address the potential impact this film has on those who watch it. I saw this movie recently with my wife and two other African American couples in a mixed-race audience. The audience sat rigidly silent during the first part of the movie as Spielberg tells the Amistad story. The slave revolt aboard a slaveship that left only two of its crewmen alive; the ascendancy of Joseph Cinque to the position of leadership among the Africans who are not homogenized into the subjective category of "The Africans," but are differentiated by their tribal affiliations and authenticated by their use of the Mende language rather than the Hollywood stereotyped nonsensical gibberish that has previously been used as the spoken language of Africans in American films; the capture of the slaveship, "La Amistad," and her cargo; and the ensuing trial to determine whether Cinque and his comrades should be found guilty of murder, returned to Cuba, and executed, or if they should be declared the property of one of a number of possible owners who present their claims before the court.

During this part of the movie, the audience was able to maintain psychological distance from the intensity of the tragedy that was unfolding before their eyes. Spielberg brilliantly moderates this potentially devastating drama with moments of social commentary and comic relief. For example, the liveryman is inserted into the narrative to represent an Americanized African who acquiesces to the standards of white society. As he drives by the African captives as they are being led to trial without acknowledging them, one of the chained men calls out to him in the Mende language, but the liveryman does not respond. Cinque responds to the man's silence by saying that "he's not a brother ... he's white." While some critics have suggested that this moment constructs from Cinque's perspective a simple-minded dichotomy between the "authentic" African and the "sellout," I think Spielberg uses this scene to deconstruct the social system that pits Africans against one another through offering privileges to those who accept their inferior status and are commodified by antebellum society. …

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