Magazine article History Today


Magazine article History Today


Article excerpt

Stephen Spielberg's blockbuster Amistad claims to educate as well as entertain; but how accurate is his portrayal of this slave revolt? John Thornton looks at the facts behind the film.

A historian who evaluates historical film has to accept that directors need some liberty to change the details to fit dramatic requirements, so long as the big picture is right. Steven Spielberg's film Amistad makes a special effort to present itself as an accurate historical drama, so much so that his related production company sent out no less than 18,000 brochures to educators across the United States, suggesting ways to integrate the film into classes. In doing this, Spielberg makes a powerful statement about his veracity, and it must be said that on the whole he succeeds, once one makes the allowance for dramatic licence.

The Amistad was a Cuban slave ship moving newly arrived Africans from one port to another in 1839 when its cargo revolted and took over the ship. The remaining crew, ordered by the rebels to return to Africa, tries to take the ship to another part of America instead and ended up being captured off New York by the United States Navy. The Amistad captives were tried in court as various claimants to the rights of salvage or ownership clamoured for their share, but eventually the court found that, since the voyage was against Spanish law, the cargo could be free. Further attempts by the US government to placate Spanish demands as well as those of the slave-holding South landed the case in the US Supreme Court in 1841 where no less than former President John Quincy Adams argued successfully for their release and return to Africa.

Liberties have been taken with some of the facts to heighten the narrative drama, though with little overall effect on the veracity of the general history. For example, one issue before the courts concerned whether or not the Amistad captives had been resident as slaves in Cuba for any time. Spielberg makes this an important element of drama and has his lawyer protagonist discover an old ship's manifest hidden by the Amistad's sailors which proves that the captives had been recently removed from a slave ship. In real life, the point was argued rather prosaically on the basis of statements made by their captives themselves as well as their obvious cultural and linguistic state; the judge even stopped the testimony of more than one witness, saying `he was fully convinced the men were recently from Africa, and that it was unnecessary to take up time in establishing the fact.' The document incident does not materially alter the issues at stake, and introduces an element of suspense that might otherwise be missing in a film that tries hard to sustain itself through what could be very dry. So the historian and the dramatist work in accord here.

If Amistad is mostly successful in telling its main story of the legal struggle of the Amistad captives, it is less effective in presenting the African players as fully human. The film is really made up of two rather distinct stories -- one, in which Spielberg is clearly more comfortable, the one of the status of slavery in American law and American history; and the other, where he is much less at home, the story of the African slave trade. It is admirable that Spielberg tries to tell both stories, and he is clearly anxious to have his African characters have real lives and not just be a passive part of the background.

The captives collectively, and their leader Cinque in particular, are important players in the story. Although the main plot is about the efforts of Abolitionists and right-thinking lawyers to rescue them, Spielberg must tell a good deal of their story to humanise them. Most of this telling, of course, focuses on their takeover of the ship, shown in graphic and often stunning detail in the opening frames of the film, followed by scenes of their lives in prison in the United States as they try to get their bearings and organise their defence. …

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