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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 Joseph 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.


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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 considered ungentlemanly for people to actively seek the presidency until near the end of the 19th century.note 
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    • 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 dropped on the understanding that they'd really get the book thrown at them if they were ever caught slave trading again.
  • 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.
  • Bond 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.
  • 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:
    • 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.
    • Professor Willard Gibbs in the film is depicted as an incompetent hack whose inept attempts to communicate with the slaves just end up making the situation even worse, and force Joadson to step in and come up with an actual way of finding an interpreter. The real Gibbs was actually the person who came up with the method that Joadson uses in the film.
  • 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 (currently in the middle of a losing re-election campaign) had entered the room behind him. Van Buren leaves the room with an unimpressed 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.
  • Knight In Sour Armor: Captain Fitzgerald's experience with the slave trade has not made him very congenial.
  • 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.
  • 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:
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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