Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

When Victims Speak (or, What Happened When Spielberg Added Amistad to His List?)

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

When Victims Speak (or, What Happened When Spielberg Added Amistad to His List?)

Article excerpt

History, which is what we must reconstruct here, is always a matter of storytelling: our reconstruction of events must impose meaning and order on them, assign motivations, assess causes, and propose moral judgments (in this case, guilt or innocence).

Bill Nichols,

Representing Reality (32)

Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997) appeals persuasively to its audience not only as it presents a view of history but also as a story about storytelling. The film addresses the problem of pre-Civil War slavery in contemporary docudramatic terms by equating storytelling with testimony, empowerment and intercultural collaboration. As the Amistad narrative becomes structured by the passage of its main characters through the American legal system, Spielberg's film (in contrast to print versions of the history) uses feature film docudrama form to argue that storytelling can right the wrongs perpetuated against victims when institutions deny them opportunities to speak. The film's docudramatic disclosure of history vindicates American justice as an ideological system.

Amistad coincides with The Ghosts of Mississippi (1997, Rob Reiner) and Rosewood (1997, John Singleton) not only because all were released during the same year, but also because all three docudramas bring to dramatic light incidents, past and actual, of American racial injustice. Amistad, more emphatically and systematically than the others, embraces the need for victims themselves to tell their stories. In Spielberg's film, disclosure functions melodramatically because it is a necessary response to victimization. Docudramatic "articulation" identifies and explains the meaning of victimization. Articulation completes docudrama's fusion of documentary material and the narrative operations of melodrama. The institutional experiences of the African characters in Amistad reveal the changing nature of their vulnerability. They face emphatically repressive social systems. They are exploited under slavery; then they are processed through American courts that threaten to return them to the slave system they have eluded perhaps only temporarily. When their salvation (freedom) ultimately depends upon their ability and the opportunity to make their case, the contemporary docudrama is also arguing for the importance of this process to its present-day audience. Articulation in the film is both gradual and collaborative. Only after translation and representation allow reception by an audience does expression become effective.

As a docudrama Amistad re-creates a chapter of historical injustice in order to clarify for the present the necessity of articulation through storytelling as a means of empowerment. Before examining the persuasive appeals through which Spielberg's Amistad relates to audiences in the present how storytelling empowered victims of racial injustice in the past, it is necessary first to consider the quality of historical evidence docudrama presents, and docudrama itself as a means of representing history.

Dramatic Evidence: Docudrama, Storytelling and Historical Representation

A basic purpose of any docudrama is to persuade us that what we are watching happened in the past. Amistad's emphasis on storytelling becomes its specific answer to the more general question: how can docudrama, as it presents its material through feature film narrative conventions, in any sense represent "history"?

By definition, docudrama is not documentary, so the validity of its view of history, its "cash value" for its audience, remains problematic. One of the strongest voices addressing the issues raised by comparing dramatic and documentary representation in film belongs to Bill Nichols. Nichols systematically takes the position that presenting stories as fiction and representing history are fundamentally distinct tasks. As a documentary theorist in Representing Reality (1991), Nichols makes an unmitigating distinction between documentary's direct roots in reality, and the more metaphorical view of actuality that stems from the narrative re-creation offered even by historical fiction. …

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