The story of La Amistad is an important story in the history of black Americans. When Debbie Allen discovered William Owen’s Slave Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad (1953, republished in 1968 under the title Black Mutiny), she became convinced that this was a story that Americans, particularly black Americans, needed to know. So she persuaded Steven Spielberg to make the film in 1997. His previous foray into a “black” film, The Color Purple, had been criticized within the black community for both softening Alice Walker’s novel too much and for its harsh depiction of black men as abusive to women. Unfortunately, decisions that Spielberg made while editing the film produced a film that is much less about the Africans on the Amistad than the white Americans who helped them win their freedom.
The film opens aboard the Amistad, with Joseph Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou) slowly prying a nail from a piece of wood. Once he has worked the nail loose, he uses it as a simple lock-pick to open the cuffs he is wearing, and then liberates the other slaves. (Historically this is wrong; the slaves used a file that they found, not a nail, and it’s not clear that Cinqué is the one who accomplished their liberation. I’m not sure that it makes too much difference, other than situating Cinqué as the leader of the whole revolt.) Having armed themselves, they attack the crew, take Ruiz and Montez prisoner, and attempt to sail back to Africa only to be tricked by their prisoners. They are taken captive by Lt. Gedney and put into a Connecticut prison.
From that point on, the focus of the film is almost entirely on American characters, with the exception of Cinqué. The Africans are treated largely as an undifferentiated group. Apart from Cinqué, only one of them, the fictional Yamba, gets any character development. There is one scene that highlights the ethnic differences between the various Africans, but since the scene deals with an argument about where to place a table, the scene mostly acts to demonstrate how irrational the Africans are rather than to illuminate anything about their culture.
Part of the reason for the obscuring of the Africans apparently has to do with Spielberg’s decision about how to deal with language. Early on, Spielberg and screenwriter David Franzoni made the decision to treat the language realistically; the Africans speak Mende rather than English. He could have done what many previous Hollywood films did and simply have everyone speak English anachronistically. So Spielberg deserves some credit for trying to treat the Africans realistically on this point. This choice has the effect of highlighting the cultural barriers and differences between the Americans and the Africans, and that enables the film to set up a story arc in which Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) and Cinqué gradually come to understand each other’s perspective.
But the decision to have the Africans speak Mende creates a problem for the film; since the audience is unlikely to know Mende, the film will have to subtitle all their dialogue for the audience to understand it. But American audiences in the 1990s were notoriously resistant to subtitled films (and not much more receptive today), so there was a good deal of concern that the subtitles would keep audiences away from the film. As a result of this concern, Spielberg chose to minimize the amount of subtitling he provides in the film. Most of what the Africans say goes untranslated.
Spielberg’s guiding principle in deciding what to subtitle seems to be how critical the dialogue is to understand what’s happening on the screen. In the opening scenes, most of the Mende goes untranslated, but the Portuguese spoken by Ruiz and Montez gets translated. Later, Cinqué’s dialogue gets translated while other Mende does not. Once a translator is found who speaks Mende (Chiwetel Ejiofor in one of his earliest roles), Cinqué’s dialogue is no long translated, except when he is talking to Yamba.
The unfortunate effect of this choice is to render the Africans the exotic Others in the eyes of the audience, because most of the time the viewer has no idea what the Africans are saying. The choice strips these characters of much of their identity and agency. Perhaps the worst moment in the film for this comes after Judge Juttson renders his verdict in the first trial. The Africans do not understand that the judge’s verdict has been appealed and that there must be a second trial. Instead, they celebrate by lighting a bonfire in the courtyard of their prison and dancing around it, because apparently Africans dance around bonfires. When Cinqué learns that there has to be a second trial, he responds by angrily stripping off his Western-style shirt and going over to the bonfire. Cinqué’s angry speech is translated, but the rest of the Africans are not translated.
The effect of this is to present the Africans as primitive savages in contrast to the more civilized (and clothed) Americans. Unfortunately, this undermines what Spielberg seems to have intended with the film, the idea that the Africans are people like the Americans.
While the film is to be commended for trying to present the complexities of communicating across linguist barriers, to accomplish this it greatly exaggerates the challenge involved. The film devotes a great deal of time to Baldwin’s attempts to communicate with Cinqué, when in fact the abolitionists found translators fairly quickly, which allowed several of the Africans to offer testimony in court.
The Role of Christianity
Another problem is the way the film treats Joseph Cinqué, whose actual name was Sengbe Pieh. Descriptions suggest that the real Cinqué was a fairly small, unimpressive-looking man, and not the tall, muscular Hounsou, but that’s a fairly minor point. Cinqué became the spokesman for the Africans after their arrival in the US, but it seems less clear that he was the leader of the initial revolt as the film shows.
The historical Cinqué converted to Christianity at some point during his captivity, as did a number of the other Africans. Many of the abolitionists were opposed to slavery for religious reasons, and others were eager to establish a Christian mission in Sierra Leone and saw the Africans as useful intermediaries for evangelization. When the Africans were finally liberated by the Supreme Court ruling, they were hosted in Connecticut by abolitionists who arranged for them to receive some education in English and Christianity. President Tyler was unwilling to help the return of the Africans, so instead, the abolitionists raised money by taking the Africans on tour to various churches where they demonstrated their knowledge of Christianity.
By the end of 1841, the abolitionists had raised enough money to charter a ship to send both the Africans and five missionaries to Sierra Leone. Most of the surviving Africans abandoned the missionaries as soon as they returned home, but enough stayed that a mission named Mo Tappan in honor of Lewis Tappan was established.
Cinqué’s history after his return is somewhat unclear; he discovered that his wife and children had disappeared, probably victims of the civil war raging in the country. What he did after he left the mission is unclear, but at the end of his life, he reportedly returned to the mission and requested Christian burial. How important Christianity was to Cinqué is unclear, but it is clear that he at least nominally converted to Christianity and cared about that conversion at the end of his life.
In the film, however, the role of Christianity is sharply downplayed. The main abolitionist characters (Joadson and Tappan, basically) never seriously mention Christianity as a motivation. There is a group of Christians who sing “Amazing Grace” and offer Bibles to the Africans, but they don’t have any actual lines and there’s no clear explanation that they are abolitionists. There is no suggestion that Cinqué converts to Christianity. Instead, the fictitious Yamba somehow teaches himself enough English to make sense of the story of Jesus, thanks to a Bible he’s given by the missionaries. He explains Jesus’ story to Cinqué, or at least an inoffensive Hollywood version of that story, but never clearly converts either.
The result of this is that once the liberated slaves arrive in the US, the film wanders away from the genuine elements of their story. It focuses almost exclusively on Cinqué’s story, as if only his experience mattered. It almost entirely removes Christianity from the story, even though Christianity was a major motivation for the abolitionists. The actual Africans navigated their situation in a fairly sophisticated way. They recognized that getting back home required them to please the Christian abolitionists by embracing Christianity long enough to return home; in doing this they adopted a common strategy, often employed by powerless or lower status people, of appeasing those with the power long enough to achieve their ends. But the film completely strips them of their agency by presenting most of the Africans as passive recipients of American benevolence.
In doing this, Spielberg unfortunately turned what Allen had apparently seen as an important story about a group of blacks liberating themselves from slavery and finding a way to return home to Africa into a story of how white Americans graciously fought to liberate blacks who weren’t really very civilized until they encountered the transformative power of American benevolence and love of liberty.
Spielberg reinforces this notion of transformation with a costuming choice he made for the slaves. When the Africans are slaves, they are naked. After the rebellion on the Amistad, the slaves wear random pieces of clothing. Over the course of their time in jail, their clothing slowly gets more sophisticated. Partway through the first trial, they begin wearing clean white shirts; by the Supreme Court trial Cinqué is dressed more or less as a well-off American. When they are returned to Africa, most of the Africans are wearing white shirts, but Cinqué is just wearing a sheet wrapped around his torso and a pair of pants. I think this last detail is intended to suggest the most famous painting of Cinqué (which depicts him as a noble savage), but it comes off as a suggestion that he can’t dress properly without American help. The closer Cinqué is to his natural African state, the more crudely he dressed, while the more he depends on Roger Baldwin and John Quincy Adams, the more sophistication his clothing shows.
Allen recognized that the story looked very much like one in which white men rescue oppressed black people. So she insisted on the insertion of the fictitious Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman). As she has said, “There were wealthy educated black men at this time. And hundreds of them were involved in the abolitionist movement.” Unfortunately, because Joadson was inserted into a story whose narrative was already fixed, that left the character without much to do dramatically. So Allen’s worthy attempt to show a black man working to free other blacks isn’t enough to overcome the thrust of the narrative as Spielberg presents it.
So on the surface, Amistad is about the struggle of Joseph Cinqué and Theodore Joadson to free Cinqué and his fellow prisoners. In reality, it’s about how wonderful it is that white men struggled to free Cinqué and the others with a little bit of help from a black abolitionist.
Want to Know More?
Amistadis available in different formats on Amazon.
Markus Rediker’s The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedomputs the focus squarely where it belongs, on the Africans fighting for their freedom, rather than on the faux-heroic abolitionists and lawyers of the film. In doing this, he breaks from earlier treatments of the Amistad incident and writes the story that Spielberg ought to have.