UCC Sees Problems in `Amistad'

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 17, 1998 | Go to article overview

UCC Sees Problems in `Amistad'


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" still dominates area theaters a month after release. In turn, the United Church of Christ (UCC) wants to make a point that will last after the film credits are gone.

While it was so-called Christian nations that adopted the slave trade, the church said, it also was faith-driven abolitionists who ended it.

Yet the three-hour movie lacks such a robust and realistic portrayal.

The UCC can say this with some authority because a main character, the abolitionist Lewis Tappan, was a forebear of the denomination.

"The Amistad movement was a Christian movement," said the Rev. Thomas Dipko, a vice president of the UCC Board for Homeland Ministries. "This is never shown clearly in the film."

The Homeland Board still has a division - the American Missionary Association - founded by Mr. Tappan after the Amistad affair was over.

In the true story, the Spanish slave ship Amistad was taken over at sea by its captured African slaves. The Africans ended up in jail in New Haven, Conn., facing charges of murder and piracy.

Mr. Tappan, a New England Congregationalist, came to their aid, as did John Quincy Adams and large segments of the nation.

Mr. Dipko lauded the film for its historic rendering of the incident, and for its religious cameos such as the judge, a Roman Catholic, praying before he ruled the slaves not guilty.

Filmed in the seaside town of Hartford, Conn., "Amistad" had a scene in which a female churchgoer sings a hymn to a disconsolate slave in jail.

Still, Mr. Dipko said, Mr. Tappan is mostly portrayed inaccurately and the extent of Christian participation in the Amistad case was sold short.

"What those Christian abolitionists really did was to create what we now recognize as the nation's first human rights movement," he said.

Mr. Tappan is often presented as "arrogant or self-serving," the UCC criticism states. At one point, an invented line is put in his mouth, saying that the African prisoners might be more valuable if they were executed and then became "martyrs" to the cause. …

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