In a previous post, I highlighted ways in which Amistad (1997, dir. Steven Spielberg) deviates from the details of the Amistad story while still getting many of the basic facts correct. But I don’t want to suggest that the film doesn’t have any historical virtues, because it does. It offers a chilling cinematic depiction of the horrors of the Middle Passage.
The Middle Passage is the general term used for the maritime journey of slave ships from West Africa to parts of North, Central, or South America (in La Amistad’s case, from Sierra Leona to Cuba). The term derives from the fact that this was the middle leg of a triangular trade route that saw money and manufactured goods taken to Africa to purchase slaves, slaves taken to the Americas to sell for commodities such as coffee, sugar, or cotton, and those goods taken to Europe to sell, with the money acquired serving to repeat the process.
A map of the ‘Triangular Trade’ system, including the Middle Passage
During the first trial, Joseph Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou) gives an extended narrative of his journey from Sierra Leone to Connecticut, which the film offers in the form of a flashback. He describes being captured by African slavers and taken to the Lomboko Slave Fortress where he was purchased along with hundred of others and forced into the hold of a slave ship. The film forces the viewer to watch a truly harrowing sequence of events.
Hounsou as Cinqué waiting at Lomboko
The slaves are kept naked and packed in so tightly they can barely move. Many are screaming or crying out. Rough weather causes many of them to become seasick and they vomit on each other. One woman is smothered to death, her small baby being passed over the pile of bodies to another slave. When it is time for feeding, the slavers come down with a pot of gruel and simply dump the food into outstretched hands, but they skip some slaves they decide are too sick to survive. The slaves frantically eat the meager food and fight for each other’s share. One woman hungrily wipes food off another woman’s face to eat it. Then, for reasons that are unclear at the time, the slavers decide they have too many slaves on the ship, so they chain a group of slaves together, weight them down with a bag of stones, and push them overboard. A resistant slave is flogged bloody, and during the process, a woman with a baby chooses to throw herself overboard to die.
I haven’t been able to find out the details of the historical Cinqué’s testimony, so I’m not sure that what the film shows us bares any relationship to what Cinqué actually said in court. But absolutely everything in this sequence is solidly based on actual details of the Middle Passage. A typical slave ship held between 350 and 450 slaves, only about half of whom had to survive in order for the journey to turn a profit (and that’s not considering the insurance on the slave cargo; dead slaves could in some cases be written off to insurance, thereby providing some profit even if they died on the journey).
As a result, there was no particular incentive for the slave traders to treat their human cargo gently apart from the fact that healthy slaves fetched more on the market than sickly or weak ones did. The brutal treatment was considered necessary because it helped break the spirit of the captives and prepared them psychologically for a life of servitude. One might also theorize that dehumanization was a coping technique for the crew, who must in many cases have understood how harsh the conditions were.
A schematic of a slave ship
The Middle Passage and its horrific conditions have long been known to historians, but it has rarely been depicted in cinema, and certainly not in a big budget mainstream film like Amistad. So despite the rather problematic elements of the film as a narrative about how wonderful whites are in helping blacks overcome the evils of slavery, Amistad forces American audiences to confront one of the most awful elements of the 18th and 19th century slave system, and it pulls few punches. It is a disturbing sequence to watch, but one that I think is extremely valuable for audiences to see. One scholar who saw the film reported seeing at least two couples, one black and one white, who both seemed visibly disturbed by this element of the film, and I suspect that’s a pretty common reaction to the Middle Passage sequence.
At a time when some commentators are trying to recast American slavery as not being so bad, or even actually a positive thing, this portion of Amistad is a reminder of how absurd those claims are. The American slave system was in fact one of the most brutal forms of slavery humanity has ever invented, far harsher in some respects than, for example, the Graeco-Roman or early medieval slave systems, and that brutality started with the Middle Passage.
Watch the Middle Passage sequence from Amistad. It’s not pleasant, but it’s unfortunately fairly accurate.
Want to Know More?
Amistadis available in different formats on Amazon.
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.
A contemporary image of Cinqué
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.
Cinqué and other Africans at the first hearing. Note how crudely they are dressed.
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.
Cinqué on modern Sierra Leonese currency
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.
The Africans during the first trial. Note the clean white shirts
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.
Adams and Cinqué before the Supreme Court. Note Cinqué’s Western clothing
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.
Nathaniel Jocelyn’s 1840 painting of Cinqué
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.
Cinqué returning to Africa. Note the white sheet.
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.
In 1839, a Spanish slave ship, La Amistad (“Friendship” in English), was travelling between Havana and Puerto Principe, Cuba, when the slaves in the hold found a file and were able to liberate themselves from their chains. They armed themselves and staged a rebellion. They killed one of the owners of the ship and took the other two, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, prisoner and tried to force them to sail back to Sierra Leone, where the Africans had been taken captive, but instead Ruiz and Montez sailed north, until the ship was intercepted by an American naval vessel off Long Island. That triggered an important legal battle and was ultimately the inspiration for Amistad, (1997, dir. Steven Spielberg).
The Legal Issues of the Amistad Case
The arrival of the liberated slaves caused an extremely complex legal problem. Lt. Gedney, who was captaining the ship that found the Amistad, took it to Connecticut rather than New York, because slavery was still technically legal in Connecticut, and that allowed him to present a claim for salvage that included the slaves as part of the cargo. Two other men also claimed salvage rights over the ship because they had apprehended some of the slaves who came ashore in search of food and water. Ruiz and Montez filed a claim that the ship and the slaves were their rightful property. The Spanish government, acting through the Connecticut district attorney, claimed the ship and its slaves as Spanish property. Finally, the liberated slaves claimed that they were not property at all and that therefore none of these suits had authority over them.
The slaves were supported in their position by the British government, which had by this point taken the lead in opposing slavery, signing treaties with various countries to ban the international slave trade, which the United States did in 1808. As a result, the issues at play in the Amistad case were intimately connected to international law. Since Spain had not outlawed slavery, and since the US had a treaty with Spain (Pinckney’s Treaty) that required the return of Spanish property to its rightful owners, the question was whether the liberated slaves counted as property or people.
Just as important were questions of Admiralty Law (or Maritime Law), which deals with matters relating to maritime commerce, crimes at sea, and the like. The chief issue here was Gedney’s decision to take the Amistad to Connecticut instead of the closest harbor, which was in New York. Gedney’s claims for salvage rights over the liberated slaves would not have been admissible in New York, which was a free state rather than a slave state. So a key question was whether the Amistad had been found in New York waters or international waters.
Fortunately for the slaves, their case was taken up by Lewis Tappan, a Christian abolitionist from New York. He put together the legal team, led by Roger Sherman Baldwin, that represented the slaves, worked to improve their living conditions while they were in captivity, attended the trial on a daily basis and wrote newspaper reports on it for an abolitionist newspaper, and arranged to have the slaves tutored in English. After their release, he worked to raise money to return them to Africa.
The case made its way through three courts. It was initially heard in the Connecticut Circuit Court under Judge Smith Thompson where the charge was mutiny and murder. Thompson ruled that the court lacked jurisdiction because the acts in question had happened outside American waters on a Spanish ship. The case was simultaneously heard in District Court under Judge Andrew Judson (not Juttson, as the film spells it) to address the issues of Admiralty Law. The chief issue here was initially the question of salvage, which Judson was skeptical of, doubting that the liberated slaves could be regarded as property.
Despite the fact that the central issue was whether the case should be heard in New York or Connecticut, Baldwin made the origins of the liberated slaves an important element of the proceedings, even though it was readily conceded by almost everyone that the slaves were Africans and not Cubans. The centerpiece of this was the testimony of Joseph Cinqué, a leader of the liberated slaves, who told the story of his capture in Africa, his journey across the Atlantic, his purchase in the Cuban slave market, and his role in the mutiny. After that, Gedney’s lawyer dropped his claim for salvage rights over the slaves, saying that his client had only ever wanted salvage rights over the ship and its non-living cargo.
Judson ruled that Gedney and his crew had taken possession of the Amistad on the high seas, not in New York waters, and so Admiralty Law was relevant. Gedney was therefore entitled to 1/3 of the appraised value of the ship and its non-human cargo. The slaves, he ruled, were born free and therefore had been unlawfully enslaved in violation of a treaty that prohibited the Spanish from importing slaves, and ordered the Executive Branch to take possession of the liberated slaves until their return to Africa could be arranged.
The Van Buren administration decided to appeal the case to the Circuit Court, because the matter had begun to rile up the southern states and Van Buren was hoping to be re-elected. Rather than hearing lengthy arguments that he realized would result in an appeal regardless of which way he ruled, Judge Thompson affirmed Judson’s ruling and sent the case to the Supreme Court because it involved two major international powers and significant issues of American law.
Martin Van Buren, 8th President of the United States
When the case got to the Supreme Court, the US Attorney General, Henry Gilpin, argued that the Amistad’s records showed the slaves were Spanish property and that therefore the courts had no right to reject the documents’ validity. Therefore, the slaves must be turned over to the Spanish. It was a weak argument, but Gilpin spent two hours making it. Baldwin spent the next four hours repeating the same arguments he had already made; he added that the Spanish had failed to appeal Judson’s liberation of the slaves, and so were arguing the wrong issue.
Former President John Quincy Adams then delivered an 8-hour speech that took up the following two days. The centerpiece of his argument was an attack on the powers of the Executive. He argued that if the President had the power to return the liberated slaves to Havana, the President would also have the power to order American citizens sent to other countries to stand trial. He also argued that Pinckney’s Treaty did not cover the return of people, only property. He also invoked the Declaration of Independence and its statement that all men have an inalienable right to life and liberty.
John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States
Justice Joseph Story issued the Court’s ruling, which was that the Africans were unlawfully kidnapped and therefore entitled to their freedom. It rejected Gilpin’s argument that the Court had no right to rule over the legitimacy of the documents in the case, since the documents were elements of a fraud. Gedney was entitled to salvage rights. When the Amistad came into American waters, it was under the possession of the liberated slaves, and was therefore not Spanish property, so no treaty required its return to Spain.
As you can see from this very long summary (assuming you haven’t given up and gone somewhere else by now), the Amistad case was an extremely complex one that ranged across a variety of issues (and let me admit here, I’m certainly no expert on legal history; I relied heavily on a couple of goodsummaries of the case, and may well have made a few mistakes on the legal details). But the issues being debated in the case were not primarily the legitimacy of slavery as a legal institution in the United States; rather the chief issues were various international treaties, Admiralty Law, and ultimately the power of the Executive branch.
Spielberg’s Version of the Amistad Story
The Amistad case has long been acknowledged by historians as an important case in the history of American slavery. It has not, however, always been well-known to the American public, having been overshadowed in the public consciousness by the later Dred Scott case since the latter case was far more important for domestic law. Debbie Allen, the well-known black actress, director, and producer, learned about the Amistad case from a historical novel by William A. Owens, Slave Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad (1953, republished in 1968 under the title Black Mutiny), which she optioned for a film. She persuaded Steven Spielberg to make what he eventually called his “most important movie”. The subject is certainly worthy of a film, but it unfortunately didn’t get the film treatment it deserved.
Slave Mutiny, the book that inspired the film
The chief problem with adapting the Amistad case to film is obviously that American audiences were unlikely to go to a movie about the legal complexities of international treaties and Admiralty Law. So, in typical Hollywood fashion, a decision was taken to focus instead on an uplifting story of American freedom that would affirm viewers’ notions that America was a country of liberty and equality where the court system was ultimately opposed to slavery. Getting the Amistad case to speak to those ideas would require considerable torture of the facts.
Since law was so critically important to the case, Spielberg and screenwriter David Franzoni (one of the screenwriters on Gladiator) decided to fall back on cinematic conventions of trial movies, so they made the film into a story about the lawyer, Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) , and his client, Joseph Cinqué (whose African name was Sangbe Pieh, played by Djimon Hounsou). These characters were given strong story arcs that focus in Baldwin’s case on his journey from thinking about the slaves as property to thinking about the slaves as human beings and in Cinqué’s case on his journey from anger and despair to discovering the beauty and promise of American justice.
McConaughey as Baldwin and Hounsou as Cinqué
John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) undergoes a less central but still important arc in which he moves from not caring about abolitionism to being a passionate proponent of it, thanks to his meetings with Cinqué. In fact, it wasn’t necessary for him to be persuaded to take the case; Adams volunteered to represent the Africans.
This is an uplifting story that has little basis in fact. Far from being a poor struggling lawyer who has to chase after the case as the film seems to present him, Roger Sherman Baldwin was the grandson of one of the Founding Fathers and a highly respected lawyer who was also a member of the Connecticut legislature and a committed abolitionist. He was elected Governor of Connecticut just three years after the Amistad case. Nor did Baldwin approach Lewis Tappan about hiring him as a lawyer; Tappan recruited Baldwin because of his solid credentials as an abolitionist and the fact that he was prominent politician of Connecticut.
I’ll talk about the film’s treatment of Cinqué in a later post, because there’s a lot to say about it, but here I’ll just say that there’s no evidence that Cinqué went through a period of angry refusal to co-operate with Baldwin. That element of the story is entirely Hollywood’s trope of the hero who goes through a period of self-doubt before finding his confidence. That part of his story line meshes rather poorly with the film’s treatment of him as a ‘Magical Negro’ who helps white people become better human beings by being inspiring.
To give Baldwin his fictitious character arc, the film had to largely sideline Lewis Tappan, who in reality was central to the entire effort on behalf of the slaves. After having a couple meetings with Baldwin and the fictitious black abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), Tappan essentially vanishes from the film, apart from watching some of the courtroom proceedings. Replacing Tappan, who was in many ways the driving force for the case, with the fictitious Joadson is a serious disservice to Tappan.
The Joadson character is a particular problem. Joadson has neither back story (other than a few hints that he was a former slave) and no motive for being an abolitionist apart from the presumed motive that a black man would obviously care about the legal rights of blacks. Freeman is given no real character development and, apart from one scene where he helps Baldwin search the Amistad for evidence, has very little to actually do except occasionally talk to Adams. The character seems to have been added to increase black audience interest, since in 1997, Freeman was already a solidly established actor while Hounsou, playing the other major black character, was a relative unknown at the time. It’s unfortunate that a film that purports to be about the humanity of blacks resorted to this sort of tokenism in casting Freeman as a made-up person.
Freeman as Joadson
The Legal Elements
Despite the character arcs that Franzoni made up, the film is still at its heart a courtroom drama. But the case was far too complex, and turned on legal issues that were unlikely to captivate American audiences, so the legal details required considerable massaging. As I noted, the main legal issues in the actual case were the question of where the Amistad was taken by Gedney and whether various treaties applied. The film shifts the issue considerably, to the question of whether the slaves were African or Cuban in origin.
That choice is not an unreasonable one. It focuses the audience’s attention on the easy-to-understand issue of whether the liberated slaves were legally or illegally enslaved, and allows the central issue of the film to be the well-loved issue of ‘freedom’, in this case understood as literal freedom from slavery. It allowed Spielberg to use chains as a recurring symbol of the issue weighing on Cinqué, so that after the Supreme Court decision, Cinqué’s handcuffs can be removed right there in the courtroom as a symbol of his triumph, despite being entirely invented since Cinqué was not present at the Supreme Court portion of the case. This choice also allows the film to get away from the much thornier issue of where Gedney found the ship.
But this choice does distort the case considerably. There seems to have been relatively little real debate in the courtroom over whether the slaves came from Africa or Cuba, despite Baldwin’s emphasis on this issue in the trial. Ruiz and Montez said they were Cuban slaves, but witnesses were presented that Ruiz had admitted they were African. A Yale linguist testified that the slaves spoke Mende, and two interpreters were found so that the slaves could provide their own testimony. (The film actually gets almost right the way the translators were found. The linguist learned to count to ten in Mende and then walked around the docks counting loudly until someone recognized what he was doing and approached him. But it wasn’t Joadson and Baldwin who did that.) But Cinqué actually did tell his harrowing story of enslavement in court, so the film is not just shoehorning that in for drama.
More problematically, if the main issue is where the slaves came from, it means that by Hollywood convention, there needs to be a stock scene in which the lawyer personally searches for evidence to prove his case. We’ve seen a scene like this in just about every courtroom drama ever filmed, and in this case it takes the form of Baldwin and Joadson searching the Amistad. Joadson finds a lion’s tooth, which allows the film to introduce what is supposed to be an inspirational story about how Cinqué killed a lion in Africa. The film later keeps returning to the metaphor of ‘slaying the lion’ (slavery, in case you needed to be hit over the head with it, which the film thinks you do) as a way to show how inspiring Cinqué is, but it all feels very contrived and it is entirely made-up.
On-board the Amistad, Joadson panics when confronted with the sight of slave chains, drops his lantern, and has to be helped by Baldwin, who then conveniently discovers the log-book of the Tecora, the slave ship that brought the Africans to Cuba. It’s used to prove that the liberated slaves were actually Africans, although it’s never explained why the Tecora’s log-book was on the Amistad in the first place.
The film also significantly changes the details of the courts and the judges involved. As I noted, the case was first brought into the Circuit Court under Judge Thompson, but was heard simultaneously in the District Court by Judge Judson as a bench trial (in which there is no jury, only a judge making a ruling). After Judson’s ruling, it briefly returned to Thompson and then was sent to the Supreme Court after Van Buren ordered an appeal.
In the film the case starts under Judge Judson, apparently in the District Court. But Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) somehow contrives to have the jury and the judge dismissed and replaced by a bench trial in front of a young ambitious judge who will do what Van Buren wants, which is to find against the Africans so he can be re-elected. But Cinqué’s cause is so obviously righteous that the judge has a crisis of conscience and does the right thing and frees the Africans. He also rules against Gedney. Then the case gets appealed straight to the Supreme Court.
The removal of the Circuit Court from the storyline makes sense; it smoothes out a complex detail that would only confuse the viewers. But the fabrication of Van Buren manipulating the court system is both unfair to Van Buren and rather nonsensical. It’s not explained how Van Buren does this, and since the film has decided to remove Adams’ attack on the power of the Presidency, it doesn’t really go anywhere in terms of the narrative arc. All it does is introduce some extra tension that could more easily have been introduced by making Judson less sympathetic to the case. It also turns Van Buren into a villain for the film, but he’s a villain who is given very little to do other than fret about the how the South will react to the case. From a script perspective, it just feels clumsy.
As they prepare for the Supreme Court trial, Cinqué suddenly develops a keen legal mind, pestering Adams with legal questions about Admiralty Law and international treaties. This is just silly, because throughout the rest of the film, Cinqué’s understanding of the American system is limited to referring to Adams as a ‘chief’ and not understanding how he can be a former chief.
At the Supreme Court level, Adams delivers a fairly brief speech (compared to the actual 8 hour oration) that acts as the film’s climax. Instead of arguing against the powers of the Executive branch, he makes an impassioned plea for liberty that, apart from a mention of the Declaration of Independence, bears no resemblance to Adams’ actual speech because it mostly turns on what a hero Cinqué is. He declares liberty to be the natural state of mankind. The film also tries to heighten the tension by claiming that 7 out of the 9 Supreme Court justices were southerners; that’s false; while I didn’t look up all the justices in 1841, at least four of them were northerners. (On a side note, the film does have a nifty piece of casting here; Justice Story is played by actual Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun.)
(Ignore the opening and jump to about 1:45)
As a result of these changes, the audience is led to think that the Amistad case basically put the whole system of American slavery on trial, and it essentially provoked the American Civil War two decades later. In fact the closing scenes of the film show the Civil War and the epilogue text mentions it. In reality, the case was about international law and the international slave trade and while its outcome certainly didn’t please supporters of slavery, it had no direct impact on American slavery. In fact, in 1841, American slaves traveling on the Creole mutinied and escaped to the Bahamas; the American government, despite the Amistad precedent, badgered the British government into paying compensation for the slaves. So rather than being sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, the American courts were generally hostile to it.
Why is the Amistad Case Important?
The film situates the Amistad case as a cause of the Civil War. Several characters mention how the southern states are ready to fight over the issue. That’s a considerable exaggeration. The Civil War wouldn’t come for another twenty years. It played a role in raising tensions over slavery, but the states were a long way from being willing to fight militarily over the issue.
Nor did the case lead to the political defeat of Martin Van Buren in his bid for a second term as president as the film says. The case started in 1839, but it didn’t reach the Supreme Court until 1841, by which time Van Buren had already been defeated by William Henry Harrison. Harrison died less than two months into his term, and was succeeded by his vice president, John Tyler, a pro-slavery southerner who refused to assist in returning the Africans to Sierra Leone.
Nor did it lead to the destruction of the Lomboko Slave Fortress in Sierra Leone. The film shows the British navy liberating the slaves and blowing down the walls of the fortress with a naval bombardment. But the Lomboko fortress was destroyed in 1840, before the Supreme Court had rendered its verdict. It’s hard to see how the case would have influenced the British to do this, since the British were already very active in opposing the slave trade.
So if the Amistad case didn’t accomplish any of the things the film attributes to it, why is the case important? What does it matter in the larger scope of history?
The Amistad case was a turning point in the abolitionist movement. Prior to 1839, abolitionists had sought to overthrow the American slave system primarily through persuasion. They had emphasized the immorality of slavery and sought to win converts to their cause that way. The House of Representatives had imposed a gag rule that automatically tabled all petitions against slavery, so that it was impossible for the issue to be addressed legislatively. What Tappan did in 1839 was open a new front in the struggle; he went to the courts and began to fight slavery legally. In that regard, the Amistad case was a significant victory for the abolitionists, even though it did not set a very strong legal precedent as far as domestic law was concerned. The case also helped rally support for abolitionism because Cinqué’s testimony dramatically illustrated the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, and Van Buren’s efforts to get the Judson’s ruling overturned seemed to suggest that the Federal government was complicit in the slave system. The case is also important in the history of international law and American diplomacy; it resolved questions about the treaties the US had with Spain.
About the only thing the film gets right about the impact of the case is that it ultimately led to the return of the Africans to Sierra Leone, but that gets to issues of how the film depicts the liberated slaves, and that’s something I’ll save for next time.