It is said that when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and
included the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal," he fully expected they would require the abolition of that
peculiar institution that was American slavery. They didn't, of course. Slavery
would thrive for another 87 years after 1776, and Jefferson himself would die a
slaveholder in 1826. But the words and obvious implications of the Declaration
of Independence need to be held close as one ponders the century of slavery
that endured despite a nation's founding document that invokes principles
utterly inconsistent with human bondage. That's just what John Quincy Adams did
in 1841 when he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court the case of the 53 African
survivors of an illegal slave ship that made landfall in Connecticut in 1839.
Adams' opponents warned that setting the Africans free could lead to civil war.
But Adams responded that should this frequently threatened civil war come, let
it be the last battle of the American Revolution. With the brilliant Anthony
Hopkins portraying Adams, this rousing speech is a centerpiece of Steven
The Amistad was a Spanish slave ship transporting slaves from Cuba to an
unknown destination, presumably an illegal destination in the southern United
States. The slave trade had been outlawed by the United States in 1808 and by
Great Britain a year earlier, but Southern plantation owners continued to buy
slaves in defiance of the law, particularly from Spanish slave traders. Before
the Africans could be off-loaded, however, they managed to overpower the ship's
crew and demanded to return to their homeland on the west coast of Africa. The
Africans lacked navigational skills, however, so they were tricked by the two
surviving white crewmen who steered the Amistad north along the American
seaboard until it was captured by an American navy ship. Connecticut
authorities charged the Africans with the murders of their former captors. But
the abolitionists who undertook their defense argued that because the slave
trade was illegal, their actions could only be understood as self-defense.
With a script by David Franzoni, Spielberg's Amistad tells this story
from the moment the African leader Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) frees himself in the
bowels of the slave ship until Adams' magnificent oratory before the Supreme
Court. Along the way, we meet Yamba (Razaaq Adoti), a rival leader among the
Africans; Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), a former slave who is now a
leading abolitionist; Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard), a leading white
abolitionist; and Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), the young real estate
lawyer who handles the Africans' case until he turns it over to Adams.
Amistad is a superb history lesson. Few will soon forget the horrors of
the infamous Middle Passage, where slaves are purchased from a holding prison
on the African coast and then packed like sardines onto rough wood platforms in
the ship hold. Once there, they are forced to lie in their own excrement,
half-starved and fed only occasional handfuls of disgusting mush. When
provisions run low, more than four dozen people are weighted with stones and
thrown into the sea to drown. For some, the prospect of a life in slavery is so
depressing they opt for suicide.
In another historical regard, Amistad nicely illustrates the way
politics so often embraces strategies over people. With callous disregard for
the human lives at stake, President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) tries to
employ the Amistad case as a mechanism for appeasing the pro-slavery elements
in his own Democratic Party. He injects the federal government into the
proceedings, arguing that the Amistad Africans should be returned as property
of the queen of Spain. Elsewhere, Spielberg effectively flays the ancient
sophistry that Africans themselves practiced slavery and, in fact, were
collaborators in the slave trade. Yes, and so what? The fact that black men
enslave black men on one continent hardly justifies black men being enslaved by
white men on another.
Meaningful and otherwise effective as this film often is, it still falls a good
ways short of true greatness. Spielberg made a mistake when he decided to open
his tale with the rebellion aboard the Amistad. The action isn't rendered very
clearly. And we haven't any clear idea of what's at stake or even who is who.
Had the film started with Cinque's capture just outside his African village and
followed through his journey on the Middle Passage (episodes now rendered in
flashback), the revolt would have packed a much greater emotional wallop. The
film is by no means too long, but Spielberg could still have dispensed with
those passages showing the 11-year-old Spanish Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin)
petulantly demanding her slaves back. Van Buren doesn't care a fig about
Isabella; he cares about Southern Democrats. Still, the picture fails to show
us why the South cares so much about the fate of the Amistad survivors. John C.
Calhoun (Arliss Howard) drops by the White House to campaign against the
Africans but never makes clear why this case matters so much when some men of
color live as "freedmen" in the South and are free throughout the North.
Some of the film's developments are astonishingly clumsy. Joadson's effort to
recruit Adams, for instance, is painfully false. His entire speech about Adams'
family history is aimed not at the character but at the uninformed viewer.
Equally awkward is a passage detailing Yamba's fascination with Christianity
based on pictures in a Bible he can't read. Why would someone want to convert
to the religion of a people holding him in chains? Yamba isn't even the
beneficiary of any proselytizing acts of kindness. And the sour, one-note
character of Tappan seems introduced purely to show how political zealots can
lose sight of the trees out of concern for the forest.
Even the plotting in the movie falters. We don't know how Van Buren manages to
replace the Amistad judge right in the middle of the original trial. And under
rules of double jeopardy (if indeed they apply -- which we also don't know), we
don't understand how the government can appeal its case to the Supreme Court.
Just before the final decision, we are told that seven out of the nine Supreme
Court justices are Southern slaveholders. So if the case is as central to the
South as Calhoun insists, how does Adams convince them? It won't be long
afterwards, remember, that the Supreme Court will rule in the Dred Scott case
that Congress has no constitutional power to prohibit slavery in the
territories, a decision that practically guarantees civil war.
In the end, it would appear that Spielberg lacked full faith in his own story.
This powerful material is undermined rather than enhanced by the pushy choral
score the director employs to hype his climactic passages. Then, Spielberg
closes with a sequence showing the destruction of an African slave fortress, an
event only tangentially related to the Amistad. Presumably, the director feared
the Supreme Court triumph would not provide enough emotional payoff. It doesn't
quite, oddly enough. But surely it could have.
You should go see Amistad. You won't be sorry. But all the same, prepare
yourself for a measure of disappointment. You will want to be blown away the
way you were with Schindler's List, and you won't be.