Revisiting Spielberg’s Amistad
By Valerie Lee ’24
The legal case surrounding the vessel, La Amistad, has not been an event well-taught by American history textbooks, especially given its landmark importance in the global history of slavery. In history, the event unfolded as such: in June 1839, the Spanish vessel, La Amistad left Havana, Cuba with Captain Ramon Ferrer transporting illegally abducted Africans to work on sugar plantations. Mid-route on July first, the captives rose up, killed the captain and the cook, seized the ship, and entrusted the crew members Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez to direct the vessel back to Africa. Their trust was misplaced. Driven by the prospect of gaining a fortune from the slave trade, the two Spaniards sailed the ship towards Africa by day – since the Africans could tell directions from looking at the sun – but secretly steered the ship northward by night, hoping to be found by other passing vessels. In August, Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney of the US ship Washington discovered the vessel on Long Island shores and brought La Amistad to the state of Connecticut, where slavery was yet to be abolished. A lawsuit with the charges of murder and piracy, along with Gedney’s claims to salvage, soon arrived at the Connecticut District Court. While Ruiz and Montez demanded reparations for their lost property – including the alleged “slaves” – based on a trade treaty between the US and Spain in 1795, the Amistad captives claimed themselves to be illegally captured free Africans unlawfully transported across the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the decision from the District Court and the Circuit court alike – which advised their immediate return to Africa as free people, the Africans drew close to peril due to the meddling of the Van Buren Administration. With the help of abolitionists and the eloquent arguments of former president John Quincy Adams, the captives eventually prevailed with a 7-1 majority in the US Supreme Court.
Based on this simplified version of the story, Spielberg’s narration in Amistad seems to have done the story justice. Law Professor Johnathan K. Van Patten said that the film had immortalized a legal case where justice prevailed against much structural and intentional hindrance, while others lamented its historical inaccuracies and omissions. It is certainly true that the movie was highly selective with what it includes from the entirety of the event which started with the abduction in Africa and concluded with the captives’ return three years after the Supreme Court verdict. Though I would argue that historical breadth and accuracy are not the chief responsibilities of popular representations of historical events, the film Amistad does bear the task of constructing historical truths for its audience as it popularizes the historical event. Spielberg – like any other director – wanted his reimagination of what was originally an extremely complex historical event to reach a wider audience. The legal case itself is often well-known only to its scholars or certain historians, it is not well-taught as a part of American history in the classrooms. The simplification of the historical nuances and the glorification of memorable details was necessary in order to appeal to the mass audiences – who are generally uninformed on the subject – in popular cinema. For many audiences learning about the Amistad for the first time, the movie shapes their perception of the historical truth. As one critic more acutely pointed out: this movie might well have carried more weight than the classrooms regarding the case of the Amistad. As a cinematic reimagination of such a lesser-known case that meets not only the scholar’s eyes but – more importantly – the public eyes, every choice it makes – be it to omit, present, or alter – bears social implications. Ultimately, Spielberg’s presentation of the truths, myths, and omissions in the film all serve one purpose: to accentuate the grandiosity of the final triumph of the Amistad captive – that would never have been possible if not for the assistance of white conscience and American institutions. To say that the final triumph was by the efforts of the Amistad captives would have been an overstatement – they were hardly afforded any agency in the American Courts. The grandiose Supreme Court hearing made Black presence dispensable while glorifying white individual heroism: it seemed to me the legal case of the Amistad was just another part of history made by great white men while their black counterparts stood by – occasionally helped – and watched. It is essentially a movie made for its white American audience – the democratic subjects under a state that is bounded by the Constitution and liberal founding ideals, without much attention to who was excluded from these ideals by design.
The movie presents us with a dramatic beginning: the African captives on the vessel freed themselves with a loose nail plugged from the lower deck and plunged headlong into a bloody rebellion against their captors, but the actual rebellion was not a consequential part of the almost three-hour-long movie. Three minutes of gruesome violence later, the Africans – led by Sengbe (known as Cinque in the movie) – prevail by taking down the captain. They then began the long voyage of deception and landed on the shores of Long Island. Whatever happened on the Amistad took up less than five minutes, it was less significant to the filmmaker than how the legal case went through the American judicial system.
The violence was depicted with gruesome detail but also with “animal propensities”: the film did not give its audience any context into why the mutiny had broken out or how they managed to succeed. The insufficient screentime devoted to the mutiny has an impact on the story – it robbed the Amistad captives of their agency and intellectual capacity in the story. Compared to the historical records on the mutiny, the movie made it seem as if the violence was “unprovoked” – that is not to say the arbitrary enslavement and illegal captivity suffered by them was not motivation enough – but in reality, the mutiny was propelled by a rather distinct incident and underwent substantial planning. It was the threats of the cook that stunned the captives: he threatened Cinque that the Africans would be eaten as meat once they reached their destination. Refusing to surrender to such a fate, Cinque began planning the rebellion with his fellow captives. There was very little possibility that they could have successfully seized the ship without careful planning: black, muscular bodies are seen as potentially dangerous and are thus weakened – typically beaten till injured – before any voyage, precisely for fear of mutiny. The depiction of Cinque’s physique was – to say the least – misleading: his portrayal was almost tailored to the standard of white fetishization towards black bodies; while in reality, the absurdly small rations designated to them and the arbitrary bodily harm they had to endure made sure that Cinque would appear tired and wounded from the middle-passage.
Note that the context-less mutiny is most certainly a premeditated arrangement made by Spielberg: by portraying the mutiny on the Amistad as a rebellion driven by the inherent love of liberty and personal freedom from arbitrary oppression – as you might find similar language be attributed to the unfolding towards the War of Independence, it perpetuates a rhetoric – without the inconvenient nuances – that was readily understandable to the predominately white American audience in the 1840s and 1990s alike.
On the other side of the story – which the movie did focus on – were the courts and the “independent” judicial branch in American democracy. When the case landed in the District Court of Connecticut, the prospects were exceptionally dim: the presiding judge, Andrew Judson, was notorious for his anti-abolitionist tendencies. The movie indicated the Judge’s racist propensity by showing his willingness to dismiss evidence in favor of the Africans with little scrutiny. Previously, Judge Judson established his reputation with his vehement opposition against education for free Black youth in the famous case of Prudence Crandall, the white teacher who dared to educate Black students and was almost imprisoned for it. Adding to the bleak situation was the defendant’s lawyer: Mr. Sherman Bladwin was portrayed to be an aspiring real-estate lawyer – indifferent to the social ills of slavery and rather unfamiliar with the abolitionist cause – who initially took the case only to make his living wage. He advised the abolitionists Theodore Joadson and Lewis Tappan to treat the case as a property case instead of a criminal trial. His rationale was workable yet dehumanizing: if the captives were in fact slaves, then they would have been property – “no more deserving of a criminal trial than a bookcase or a plow” – devoid of any agency to commit crimes; if on the other hand they were illegally acquired, they would have won the case based on “wrongful transfer of stolen goods”. Despite Judge Judson’s infamous racism and Mr. Baldwin’s moral blindness, the African captives prevailed in the district court. Spielberg told a perfectly reasonable story of how the rule of law overrides personal beliefs and prejudice, yet history is seldom so conveniently neat.
Mr. Roger Sherman Baldwin was no real estate lawyer who had to work for sustenance; in reality, he came from a prestigious family, finished law school at Yale, and became an ally of the abolitionist cause before the Amistad controversy engulfed the US. Yet again, it fits into Spielberg’s story more comfortably if Baldwin were a young, inexperienced lawyer who learned to dispose of his moral blindness as he came to the story of the captives and fully grasped the gravity of the abolitionist cause. Similarly, Judge Judson was portrayed as a repented judge who grew to see the injustice underlying the case. His ruling was surprising: Van Buren preempted his decision based on his past tendencies – unequivocally anti-Black and anti-abolitionist – and prematurely ordered a vessel to deliver the Africans back to South American plantations. The old man instead transcended his personal dislike for the Africans and ruled according to the written legal codes. The movie, and even some scholarship, tend to romanticize Judge Judson’s decision on the Amistad case. It was unlikely that his good conscience or public pressure alone – even these two combined – swayed his notoriously racist mindset. It was likely something more uncomfortable for Spielberg’s movie-going audience: Judson was a member of the American Colonial Society whose collective belief was that America should be a white society. Their goal was neither to emancipate the enslaved peoples nor to procure more Africans as slaves; to be precise, they wanted all Black people in the United States – regardless of their birthplace – to be shipped (back) to Africa. The wish of the Amistad captives was no other than to return to their homes in Africa – precisely what Judge Judson as a member of the American Colonial Society wanted to hear.
In comparison, Van Buren’s betrayal against the separation of powers ordered by the Constitution made him out as the adversary to the “American institutions” and “white conscience” in the movie. The lengthy depiction of the legal case consistently served to reinforce the dichotomy between a constitutional democracy – the United States – and a hereditary monarchy – Spain. It is the independent courts that keep the Americans free. The audience would spontaneously develop righteous anger towards Van Buren’s selfishness, incompetence, and – most of all – his attempt to transgress the separation between the executive and judicial branches, since whatever he does draws America closer to the unenlightened monarchy led by a “prepubescent Spanish Queen”.
That said, I disagree with Jesse Lemisch’s rather harsh criticism in his article “Black Agency in the Amistad Uprising” that we would all be better off if it hadn’t existed at all. He believed that the movie offered an interpretation of the past that is inherently conservative and served only to reinforce the stereotypes against Black people. I don’t want to completely disregard a selection of powerful scenes in the movie that make profoundly moving statements. Spielberg successfully captured one essence of the Amistad case through his film: it was a historical case that featured an unprecedented exchange of information between the enslaved individuals and the slave-holding American society. Many American citizens in the 1800s who were so entrenched in the resilient social institution of slavery had never personally experienced any meaningful encounter with an African person. The horrors of the middle passage depicted through Cinque’s recollection in court were for most living in the 1840s and many living in contemporary times unheard of. One of the most appalling of the many cruelties of the middle passage was the means to “lose the poundage”, white slave dealers simply tied a group of enslaved people together to a bag of rocks and tossed them into the sea. The movie, despite all its flaws and agenda, immortalized a remarkable trial where an African told the untold story of slavery during the middle passage and the home front.
We can also see Spielberg satirizing the power dynamics between the Africans and the 1840s predominantly white American society. It added a lighthearted touch to the generally quite serious plot when the Amistad Africans called the Christian missionaries “miserable-looking entertainers”. History has perpetuated problematic rhetoric for long that it was not only the duty of good Christians to fight for the abolition of slavery but also to enlighten the Africans with Christianity. Indeed, students from Yale Divinity School traveled to the New Haven prison and taught them about the Bible. Yet, Spielberg subverted such hierarchical power dynamics: one of the captives snatched a Bible from a missionary and learned to understand it through his own experience. He came to compare the trial of Jesus – who had similarly committed no crime deserving of the arbitrary punishment – to their own plight. There is a power in subverting the rhetoric: they are not to be saved by converting to Christianity; they have faced forces of assimilation and enlightenment and absorbed it as a means to make sense of the way the “other” – the Americans – live.
The movie reached its dramatic climax when former President John Quincy Adams finally decided to defend the case in front of the Supreme Court. Natural laws – the most important of which was man’s innate propensity towards freedom – were implored where written, positive laws did not apply. Cinque once told Adams that in truly desperate times he prays to his ancestors for guidance and help; Adams did just that in court. He appealed to the court using the American founding ideals grounded in the love for freedom – something that all humans would go to lengths to regain once lost. Adam’s speech echoed the scene of rebellion at the beginning of the movie: the mutiny was rationalized as an act of the pursuit of freedom that should be readily understandable for any American that upholds the Declaration of Independence. The case was a triumph for the Amistad Captives but more so for the American democracy, as the villains who betrayed the system were defeated and the abolitionist cause rallied wide support from the high-profile case.
Some mainstream film reviews on Spielberg’s Amistad seem to have reached a consensus on how exactly the Amistad captives prevailed: luck, institutions, and conscience. Note how only the first word “luck”, something that inherently has nothing to do with one’s intellectual capacity and human agency, was used to describe the African captives. The sickness, brutality, and deaths suffered by the Africans underscore the evils of slavery, but it was the white attorneys and leaders who wielded a comprehensible voice and agency to assert social influence. Similarly, the natural ability and physical strengths of Cinque made him the leader of the Africans while his professional eloquence and moral integrity made Adams the leading hero in this case. These dichotomies are not necessarily true, but they accentuate the role of white benevolence and enlightened institutions in the fight for the captives’ freedom and the fight for emancipation at large. The movie – though well-researched – was a historical epic displayed with an agenda: to tell the story of how the evil institution of slavery comes to crumble under American Constitutional democracy rather than the collective, organized resistance of the oppressed from outside of the system.
Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Van Patten, Jonathan K. “The Trial of Cinque – Steven Spielberg’s Amistad.” “The Trial of Cinque – Steven Spielberg’s Amistad” by Jonathan K Van Patten, 2021. https://works.bepress.com/jonathan_vanpatten/42/.
Lemisch, Jesse. “Film: Black Agency in the Amistad Uprising: Or, You’ve Taken Our Cinque and Gone.” Souls 1, no. 1 (1999): 57–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/10999949909362152.
Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York, New York: Viking, 2007.
Wilson, Henry. History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America. Boston, Massachusetts: J.R. Osgood and Company, 1872.