Rated R. Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 1; Sex 1/Nudity 4.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
The events swirling around the murder trial of a group of 53 Africans once held the attention of the nation, but then was largely forgotten, swallowed up by the cataclysmic events of the Civil War. Barely mentioned, if at all, in many Black History books, the trials helped clarify the issues leading to the Civil War, and pitted two powerful men against each other, President Martin Van Buren and former President John Quincy Adams. Again, we are indebted to Stephen Speilberg for using his massive talents as a filmmaker to focus our attention on an important area of our history.
In February of 1939 slaves from West Africa are shipped to Cuba where 53 of them are purchased, given false papers, and put aboard the schooner The Amistad for shipment to a plantation in the Caribbean. But led by Sengbe Pieh , called by the Spanish “Cinque,” the captives break free of their manacles, seize control of the ship and force the two surviving crew members to navigate the ship back to Africa. But the two manage to turn the vessel in the opposite direction at night, so that it follows a ragged course up the shoreline of the United States. Off the coast of Long Island a U.S. brig captures it, the two whites are freed, and the Africans sent to New Haven, Connecticut, where they are held for trial. No one can speak their language, nor do they understand English or Spanish, so it is assumed that they are legal slaves, and therefore must be guilt of mutiny and murder. Matters become complicated for the poor judge when a shipload of petitions are filed — one from the owners of the slaves, one from American officers claiming ownership of the prisoners by right of salvage, one from the Spanish diplomat representing Queen Isabella II of Spain, and a petition from Abolitionists Lewis Tappan and Theodore Joadson, the only ones concerned about the welfare of the prisoners themselves.
Tappan and Joadson are joined by a young real estate attorney Roger Baldwin, who at first sees the case only in terms of property rights. But as he comes into frequent contact with Cinque and his fellow prisoners, Baldwin changes, finally seeing the case in terms of human dignity and freedom. There is a powerful moment in the trial in which Cinque stands among his manacled peers and cries out the only English words he has mastered, “Give us free…Give us free…Give us free!” New Haveners are polarized by the almost daily sight of the ragged band of prisoners marched back and forth from their cell to the federal courthouse. Many church members sing hymns and offer support to the Africans, while others leer and jeer at them. One prisoner Yamba takes a Bible from one of the sympathizers, a book which, as we shall see later, has a great impact upon the illiterate men.
Joadson and Tappan try to enlist John Quinsy Adams to defend the prisoners, but he does not want to get involved. He does inspire Joadson by telling him that the lawyer who tells the best story wins the case. “What is their story?” “They’re from Africa,” the Abolitionist replies. “No, that is not their story,” Adams answers, “It is where they are from.” He then asks Joadson what is his story. That he is from Georgia? No, that is not his story. “Your story — you are an ex-slave, and have fought against great obstacles all your life. THAT is your story!” Realizing that the language barrier must be breached if they are to find the story of the prisoners, Joadson and Tappan scour the docks looking for someone who can speak Mende, the tribe and language of Cinque. When they find him, he becomes the key means for proving that the prisoners were not legal slaves but had indeed been abducted from their African homes and shipped through an infamous slave fort to Cuba. Through flashbacks we see the incredibly brutal abduction and harrowing Middle Passage transport, during which a number of men, women and children are thrown overboard because calculations show that there will not be enough food for everyone to survive on. Even though President Van Buran stacks the deck against the prisoners by replacing the original judge in the case with a man he thinks will favor the Southern interests, Roger Baldwin wins the case. But the jubilation of Cinque and friends is cut short by the news that the government is appealing the case to the Supreme Court. The outlook is grim, because seven of the nine Justices are themselves slaveholders. It is then that John Quincy Adams does agree to represent the Africans, and rises to what we now realize was the greatest moment of his life.
Although the violence of the mutiny is depicted more graphically than necessary, “Amistad” is a film that should be “must seeing” for youth and adults. It is another of the precious historical episodes in the tangled history of blacks and whites of the U.S. that should be honored and told over and over, “lest we forget.” Some rich scenes for preaching/teaching:
-1. The importance of “our story,” in the exchange between Adams and Joadson. Even the politically appointed judge is swept along by the African’s story, as later are most of the Supreme Court Justices.
-2. The thirst for freedom so eloquently shown in Cinque’s pleas, “Give us free…”
-3. The tremendous importance of communication between people of disparate cultures and stations in life. Through gestures and sketches Baldwin and Cinque manage to get across some basic facts to each other. But it is through the dignified bearing of Cinque and others that Baldwin comes to understand that the Africans are human beings worthy of equal treatment.
-4. The Bible incident — “In the beginning was the image”?One of the prisoners, Yamba, has been studying the pictures in the Bible he took out of the hands of one of the Christian sympathizers who greet them each time the prisoners are taken outside their cell. He tells his fellow prisoners, as he points to an engraving of the Hebrews in slavery, that these are a people that suffered even more than we. He turns to a picture of the Nativity. And who is he? someone asks. Yamba answers that he is not certain, but that apparently his birth made a big difference — everywhere he goes he is followed by the sun — he points to the aureole the artists of the period often placed around Christ’s head. From the pictures of healing and of the events of Holy Week, the illiterate African is able to grasp the essence of Christ. We know this is the case when Yamba, enroute to the courthouse again, looks up at the masts of the sailing ships; the camera comes in emphasizing that the each of the masts form a cross.
-5. Cinque’s story of the lion terrorizing his people and of his fortuitous killing of it by a well-thrown rock. Before the Supreme Court John Quincy Adams uses the story, “We are going to fight a lion that could tear our country apart, and all we have is a rock.