Film / Amistad

Amistad is a 1997 Steven Spielberg film based on the true story of a slave revolt which took place aboard a ship of the same name in 1839, and the legal battle that followed. It shows how, even though the case was won at the federal district court level, it was appealed by President Martin Van Buren to the Supreme Court, and how former President John Quincy Adams took part in the proceedings.

This had the first major film role for Djimon Hounsou as Cinque, the leader of the slaves. It was also the second film for which Anthony Hopkins received an Academy Award nomination for playing a U.S. president, having previously been nominated in 1995 for playing Richard Nixon in Nixon.

This Movie Contains Examples Of:

  • Anachronism Stew: Gustave Doré's illustrated Bible is shown, but Doré was only 9 in 1841 and his Bible wouldn't be published until 1866.
  • Anti-Villain: It's shown in a couple of scenes that Van Buren's biggest fear was civil war. Yes, he's worried about his own re-election campaign, but he's even more worried about keeping the peace.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: All the crewmen of the Tecora (a Portuguese ship) speak Spanish with thick Mexican accents.
  • Auction of Evil: Before Cinque leads the uprising against the ship's crew, La Amistad docks in Cuba where several of the captive Africans are sold off to local owners.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Adams wins the case and Cinque and the other Africans are freed and return to Africa. The ending texts reveals Cinque's family was probably carried off into slavery, his people were in a civil war, and the one which Americans were dreading the case would lead to finally consumed them.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The surviving Spaniards, realizing that the ship will be searched as part of their plan to be freed by another passing boat, hide crucial documents away. Joadson later finds them, and uses them to win the case in the lower courts as they prove the slaves are African.
  • Cool Old Guy: John Quincy Adams.
  • Close Up On Head: The close up of the African leader dramatically shouting "Give us! Us Free!" is suitably dramatic and emotional... until the camera zooms out to show the whole courtroom, showing how silly it looked to the people present in the room with him.
  • Daylight Horror: The scene where slaves are tossed overboard to drown during the Middle Passage.
  • Death of a Child: A girl drowns herself with a baby in her arms during the Middle Passage scene.
  • The Dog Bites Back: The slaves rise up and kill the slavers (except for two to steer the ship).
  • Driven to Suicide: During the Middle Passage sequence, a slave girl dives off from the ship with a baby in her arms, preferring death than to endure suffering aboard at the slavers' hands.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Cinque, the village chief, is sold to slavers by his own people (and possibly his wife). Truth in Television-most African slaves were sold to Europeans by other Africans, sometimes even their own people.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • President Martin Van Buren, though the film does show that he's effectively being blackmailed by John C. Calhoun into going to the lengths that he does.
    • Lewis Tappan as well. After the appeal, Tappan says the Amistad Africans may be better off as martyrs, after which Joadson admonishes him as not caring about the slaves, but only about ending slavery. The real Tappan was famously known as an uncompromising anti-slavery extremist, who supported full legal rights (including gun ownership and voting) and advocated mass intermarriage to create a country without prejudice.
  • Hollywood History: Presidential candidates didn't campaign for votes at the time (it was considered highly unseemly), let alone from the backs of trains, and some aspects of the court case are altered for dramatic effect.
  • Ironic Name: Amistad (the ship's name) means Friendship in Spanish.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Adams' first appearance is during a session of the House to determine whether or not to honor an old man's request that his possessions form an institute of national treasure. The representative addressing Adams dismisses the collection as a "bunch of junk". The old man? James Smithson, founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution.
  • Made a Slave: After surviving the Middle Passage, several Africans aboard the La Amistad are taken ashore to be sold off at an auction in Cuba.
    • At the end of the film it is revealed that although Cinque returns home, his family was probably captured and sold into the New World.
  • Meta Casting: Former Supreme Court justice Harry A. Blackmun plays Supreme Court justice Joseph Story.
  • Misplaced Vegetation: A West African is surprised to see an East African Violet at an American garden.
  • Not So Different:
    • The District Attorney notes that the Mende also own slaves, and have for centuries, as a means of countering the arguments made against slavery. James Covey, the interpreter and a former slave himself, points out Mende "slaves" were more like indentured servants, but in any case this is irrelevant with regards to the law. It amounts to a tu quoque aimed against anti-slavery sentiment.
    • The Mende note a lot of similarity between the Jewish customs shown in the illustrated Bible which American missionaries gave them and their own, including wrapping the body for burial inside a tomb. This may be because they're Muslim, and Islamic funeral rites are similar to those in Judaism.
  • Out-of-Character Moment: More for the real Matthew McConaughey than for his actual character. When the case is won in the lower court, McConaughey leaps in the air, shouting a Big "YES!" while clenching his fist in a way that seems pretty odd for a lawyer in the 1840s.
  • Post-Mortem One-Liner / Quip to Black: British navy captain Fitzgerald attempts to corroborate Cinque's testimony about a slave fortress in Sierra Leone, but Forsyth's lawyer counters that since they've never found it, it may not even exist. In the film's epilogue, the Royal Navy finally locates the fortress and blasts it into rubble, prompting Fitzgerald to start dictating a letter to Forsyth:
    Fitzgerald: My dear Mr. Forsyth, it is my great pleasure to inform you that you are, in fact, correct. The slave fortress in Sierra Leone... does not exist.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The revolt on the Amistad in the beginning of the film.
  • Royal Brat: 10 year old Queen Isabel II of Spain (the fact that her mother was regent and the actual head of state at the time is omitted under the Rule of Funny).
  • Slave Liberation: The Destruction of the Lomboko fortress.
  • The Stoic: Captain Fitzgerald, in a really awesome badass way.
  • Token Minority: Theodore Joadson, the black abolitionist played by Morgan Freeman, did not exist.
  • Vehicle Title
  • Wham Line
    Judge Coglin: Were they born in Africa? ...I believe they were.