Jack Nilan            EMail : jacknilan@yahoo.com
Defending The Amistad

It's been ten years since Steven Spielburg movie Amistad came out. At the time of its release it was assailed by some historians. One said, "as a movie Amistad is simply a bore. As history, this account of a Cuban slave ship seized in 1839 by its African captives, and their legal travail that ended in the U. S. Supreme Court, also leaves much to be desired." 1

I think part of the reason the movie was attacked by some historians was the study guide that was produced to accompany the movie and was sent to schools. Historian Eric Foner said :

The film’s historical problems are compounded by the study guide now being distributed to schools, which encourages educators to use Amistad to teach about slavery. The guide erases the distinction between fact and fiction, urging students, for example, to study black abolitionism through the film’s invented character, Theodore Joadson, rather than real historical figures. And it fallaciously proclaims the case a “turning-point in the struggle to end slavery in the United States.” Most galling, however, is the assumption that a subject does not exist until it is discovered by Hollywood. The guide ends with a quote from Debbie Allen, Amistad's producer, castigating historians for suppressing the “real history” of African-Americans and slavery. Historians may be guilty of many sins, but ignoring slavery is not one of them. For the past forty years, no subject has received more scholarly attention. All American history textbooks today contain extensive treatments of slavery, almost always emphasizing the system’s brutality and the heroism of those who survived — the very things Amistad's promoters claim have been suppressed.

Mr. Foner, and some other historians were not happy about being taken to task by Hollywood. Because their feathers were ruffled, I think Amistad was unfairly attacked and its reputation was damaged. I think its time to take another look at the Amistad.

If we take a look at Mr. Foner’s charge that Amistad was boring, I don’t think the charge has held up. On the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb.com) site, the movie has a 7.0 ranking, with over 15,000 votes. Since this site, is in general, populated by movie lovers, the very respectable ranking attests to the fact that the movie is in fact pretty popular with the general movie going public. On the Rotten Tomatoes site (rottentomatoes.com), which is populated by mostly film critics, it has a 67% approval rating, which again attests to its popularity as a film.

Mr. Foner felt that the decision to have the slaves speak their native language seriously detracted from the film. He said :

this device backfired along the way when someone realized that Americans do not like subtitled movies, as foreign filmmakers have known for decades. In the end, most of the Mende dialogue ended up on the cutting- room floor. Apart from the intrepid Cinque, the Africans' leader, we never learn how the captives responded to their ordeal. It would have been far better to have the Africans speak English (the film, after all, is historical fiction), rather than rendering them virtually mute.
I really couldn’t disagree with Mr. Foner more on this point. Having the slaves speak their native language reinforced some of the major points of the movie. These were people who were taken from their homes and thrown into a completely alien situation. The fears, confusion and sense of isolation brought about by this situation were reinforced by having the slaves being unable to speak with their captives or with their defenders. In fact they didn’t even know who their defenders were or what they were trying to do. One of the most effective lines in the movie, “Give us free”, was uttered by Cinque as he struggled to communicate his thoughts in this foreign world. The sense of helplessness the slaves must have felt is more effectively conveyed by having the slaves speak in their native languages.

Mr. Foner also criticized the movie because he said, “As in Glory, an earlier film about black Civil War soldiers, Amistad's black characters are essentially foils for white self-discovery and moral growth.” I don’t think that there is anything wrong with this cinematic approach. The audience is supposed to grow along with the characters in the movie. This device has been used in many quality movies, including Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Mr. Foner also has problems with the historical value of the movie. He felt that “The film gives the distinct impression that the Supreme Court was convinced by Adams' plea to repudiate slavery in favor of the natural rights of man, thus taking a major step on the road to abolition.” I didn’t get that impression from the movie. I think the movie made it pretty clear that the case involved property rights and was not a discourse on slavery or the natural rights of man. I think the movie intentionally sacrificed some dramatic effect they could have had by staying true to the source material and keeping the arguments on property rights instead of on more idealistic issues.

Robert Toplin in his book, Reel History : In Defense of Hollywood, argues that the movie unfairly portrays Lewis Tappan. He said that he “certainly did not want the Africans to die as martyrs so that they could contribute to the antislavery cause, as the movie suggests. … He was so committed to the abolitionist cause that he did not go home to visit his dying daughter while he was working on the Amistad case.” I can’t help that think that someone who was this committed and driven, would be willing to sacrifice himself, or others, for a cause that so dominated his life. I think that Tappan represented all the heroic and fanatical abolitionists who helped end slavery in this country. I don’t think it is a great reach to think Tappan would willingly sacrifice these Africans to help with the overall cause. I am not saying that this is what happened, I am just saying that it is a reasonable representation given the idealism and fanticism of the abolitionists.

Another point that historians have criticized is that Cinque and John Quincy Adams never had the meeting that was portrayed in the movie. I think that the scenes of Adams and Cinque were added so that we could view Cinque as being actively involved in the slaves fight for their freedom. I think this portrayal, although perhaps historically inaccurate in this case, can be forgiven because it represents the involvement of slaves and free blacks in the battle to end the evils of slavery.

I think that Amistad presents many things of value that should be seen by our students. The scenes of the tribal kidnappings, the slave forts in Africa, the Middle Passage and the streets of New Haven were all fascinating. The representation and personification of slaves who were not happy to be in captivity (unlike those presented in Gone with the Wind, Jezebel et. al.) were very realistic. The presentation of historical characters including former President John Quincy Adams, President Van Buren, Queen Isabella, John Calhoun and Lewis Tappan helps give faces names in the history books. The movie also presents the dilemma facing the North and the South in 1839 as they were moving in opposite directions regarding the issue of slavery.

Some historians criticized the movie for not being accurate enough. Others said it was too boring, the story needed an antagonist to help make the story more dramatic. I think Stephen Spielburg did a great job with the move. I found the movie to be exciting, dramatic and informative. I think Mr. Foner, and other historians who dismiss Amistad are doing a disservice to students who could benefit from viewing it and other quality movies based on American history (and there aren’t too many others). There are some historical distortions in Amistad, as there must be in dramatic presentation, but a viewing would help students become acquainted with the outline of American history. If students entered their study of American history with a background provided by quality historical films, they might advance quicker in their understanding of American history.

I think that there is a group of movies that all students would benefit from seeing before they entered an American history class. Although some are rated R, there are PG version available for most. Some of the movies that I would recommend are Black Robe, The Crucible, The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Amistad, Glory, Matewan, The Grapes of Wrath, Iron Jawed Angels, Saving Private Ryan, Dr. Stangelove, Good Luck, and Good Night, Thirteen Days, Malcolm X, All The President’s Men and The Insider..

If students were to view these movies before taking an American history class they would provide a point of reference that can expedite and enhance discussions throughout the year. Errors in the movies can be pointed out and used to stimulate further discussions. Historians who discourage students from viewing quality historical films could be hurting the development of their future history students. After all, if all of our decision makers in Washington had been required to see Fort Apache, we would probably never have been in Viet Nam or Iraq.

1. Eric Foner . "The Amistad Case in Fact and Film." http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/74 (March 1998)

Robert Brent Topin. “Reel History : In Defense of Hollywood.” University Press of Kansas. 2002