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Film / Amistad

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Amistad is a 1997 American historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the true story of a slave revolt which took place aboard the Spanish 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.

Djimon Hounsou, in his first major film role, stars as Joseph Cinque, the leader of the slaves. Anthony Hopkins received an Academy Award nomination for his role as John Quincy Adams (having previously been nominated in 1995 for playing another U.S. President, Richard Nixon, in Nixon). Also included in the All-Star Cast are Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, Nigel Hawthorne, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgård, and Anna Paquin.

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.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Martin Van Buren didn't campaign actively for re-election, let alone from the back of a train, as it was in fact considered ungentlemanly for people to actively seek the presidency until near the end of the 19th century.note 
    • The initial hearing ends with the U.S. Navy officers having their salvage claim thrown out, and the two surviving Amistad crewmembers being arrested for slave trading. In reality, the navy officers did get awarded a third of the remaining salvage aboard the ship — which was admittedly more a gesture than anything else, as said salvage value was close to zero once you took out the slaves and perishable goods on-board — and the surviving crewmembers were actually arrested before the case was heard; they subsequently posted bail, returned to Cuba, and the charges against them were quietly droppednote  on the understanding that they'd really get the book thrown at them if they were ever caught slave trading again.
    • The Lomboko slave fortress was not destroyed until 1849, at which point US Secretary of State John Forsyth had not only left office,note  but been dead for eight years, and thus Captain Fitzgerald wouldn't be dictating a letter to him (or assuming that he didn't know Forsyth had died, it would never be delivered).
    • Baldwin wasn't the inexperienced ambulance chaser that is portrayed in the film. He was middle-aged and quite well-respected. He was, in fact, a prior member of the Connecticut House of Representatives. He was, a few years later, elected to the US Senate and as Governor of Connecticut.
  • Asshole Victim: Face it, no tears are shed for the Amistad crew when they're hacked to death.
  • 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 reveal Cinque's family was probably carried off into slavery, his people were in a civil war, and the one which so many 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. Baldwin 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, who takes no guff and proves invaluable in winning the case.
  • Close Up On Head: The close up of Cinque dramatically shouting "Give us! Us Free!" is suitably dramatic and emotional... until the camera zooms out to show the whole courtroom looking at him in confusion (and Holabird angrily yelling at him to shut up), showing how silly it looked to the people present in the room with him.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Cinque in his native language cracks plenty of dry comments, especially in the beginning. The other Africans do so as well.
  • Death of a Child: A girl drowns herself with a baby in her arms during the Middle Passage scene.
  • Desk Sweep of Rage: Baldwin does this in a brief scene after he finds out President Van Buren has dismissed the jury (who were about to set the slaves free) and the judge, and replaced the judge with one of his own choosing.
  • 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.
  • Heroic BSoD: Joadson suffers one when his lantern goes out while he and Baldwin are searching the hold of La Amistad, presumably because it reminds him of his own experience being brought over to America as a slave.
  • Historical Downgrade: In real-life, Professor Willard Gibbs did an extensive amount of work to work out the numerical system used by the slaves, then used that to find a pair of interpreters (James Covey, plus another, Adapted Out sailor named Charles Pratt) who helped him become fully fluent in the slaves' language. Here, Gibbs is only shown making one attempt at talking with the slaves, which fails dismally, and it's heavily implied to be Joadson who comes up with the method of finding an interpreter (though Gibbs is at least shown helping Joadson and Baldwin to count in the slaves' language).
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Zig-zagged with President Martin Van Buren. On the one hand, the real Van Buren didn't try to rig the initial court case by swapping out the judge, as this film's version does. On the other hand, in real-life Van Buren intended from the start to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court if need be, whereas the film's version is prepared to let the matter drop after the initial case, until John C. Calhoun threatens him with dire consequences unless the ruling is overturned.
    • Lewis Tappan. 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. There is no evidence that Tappan held such a cynical opinion about the Amistad trial, either; while he was certainly happy about the publicity it received, Tappan worked throughout the trial to raise funds for the Mende's return to Africa while using assistants to teach the prisoners English (indeed, Tappan was so well-respected by the Mende that they named a town after him in Sierra Leone).
  • Insult Friendly Fire: Hammond, unimpressed with John Quincy Adams, scoffs "Is there anything more pathetic than an ex-president?" He is unaware that President Van Buren (who is about to lose the next election) had entered the room behind him. Van Buren leaves the room with an offended expression while Hammond stammers out an explanation.
  • 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.
  • Karma Houdini: The crew of the Tecora, who subjected the slaves to levels of suffering that made what their counterparts on La Amistad did seem mild by comparison, are never shown to suffer any consequences for their misdeeds. Sadly this appears to have been Truth in Television, as Portugal had at the time only outlawed slavery and slave trading on its mainland (it wouldn't ban them completely until around three decades after this film's setting), and historical records are unclear on the fate of the ship and its crew.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Captain Fitzgerald's experience with the slave trade has not made him very congenial, bluntly and dryly describing the atrocities of slavery to the court.
  • 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.
  • Mighty Whitey: Surprisingly enough, actually downplayed compared to real-life. Baldwin, Tappan, and John Quincy Adams all play the same roles they did in the actual Amistad case, with the fictitious Theodore Joadson being inserted into the proceedings to prevent this trope from being too blatantly obvious.
  • Misplaced Vegetation: A West African is surprised to recognize an East African Violet at an American garden.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Theodore Joadson, the black abolitionist played by Morgan Freeman, did not exist. It's thought that Joadson is essentially a composite character made up of several real-life black abolitionists, though likely based primarily on Frederick Douglass.
  • "Not So Different" Remark:
    • 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.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: In spades, but from Holabird most prominently, who not only refers to the Africans as savages and other labels, but also brings up the typical pro-slavery talking point that Africans also owned slaves and presumably treated them the same way.
  • 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.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: We thankfully don't see it, but after the death of the pregnant slave, several of the Amistad's crew are seen happily carrying off several terrified African slaves.
  • Right Behind Me: Hammond says "Is there anything more pathetic than an ex-president?" unaware that Van Buren is right behind him. He tries to explain that he was talking about Adams.
  • 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).
  • Unflinching Walk: Cinque towards the two crew members with guns during the revolt.
  • Vehicle Title: Technically the ship's name is prefaced with either "La" (in its original Spanish) or "The" (in the various U.S. court documents), but it otherwise fits this trope like you'd expect. The ship's logo is also used as the film's title card.
  • Wham Line:
    Judge Coglin: Were they born in Africa? ...I believe they were.