Go to Homepagesilverscreen.GIF (5602 bytes)smallscreen.GIF (5377 bytes)News&views.GIF (5838 bytes)archive.gif (5286 bytes)

Amistad (Van Buren's Folly)

By Robert L. Waring (December 1997)

Yes, it’s true that Amistad is another movie about some black people in peril who are helped out by some nice white guys, and told largely from the perspective of these white guys. For that reason, this true story of the 1839 rebellion on the slave ship La Amistad and the subsequent recapture and trial of the (alleged) slaves has been the subject of some controversy. Director Steven Spielberg attempted to deflect some of this criticism in a recent interview by explaining that the film is not so much a tale about slavery as it is about "how these Africans are hopelessly caught in the quagmire of the American justice system." (His comment may also have been introspective—Amistad has been mired in a legal challenge by Barbara Chase-Riboud, an author who alleged the film appropriated her ideas. She filed an unsuccessful, last minute injunction to prevent its release, heightening the film’s public visibility and further lining Spielberg’s pockets and possibly her own.)

Taking a cue from Spielberg, this commentary discusses the film’s depiction of the two issues of slavery and justice. While I disagree with Spielberg—slavery is the more important issue of the two—Amistad teaches an important lesson about judicial independence.


Regardless of one’s opinion of Spielberg’s perspective in depicting slavery, it must be acknowledged that the film tells a powerful story about that evil institution. Yes, there are some scenes overly engineered with loud music and Spielberg’s syrupy sentimentality, but the film becomes an inescapable vortex at its midpoint when the principle spokesman for the slaves, Cinque, recounts the horrors of his kidnaping and voyage to Cuba on a slave ship. This flashback is as difficult to watch as any scene from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The film does have a happy ending, but fortunately, that does not begin to make up for the revulsion most viewers are likely to retain from their terrifying glimpse of slave transport.

One nearly universal reaction to this film is bewilderment about how such a compelling story could have remained untold for so long. In fact, a novel called Black Mutiny based on the story was published in 1953. Perhaps in part because America has been in a state of self-denial about slavery since the founding of the Republic, the La Amistad incident, a national embarrassment, never seems to have achieved prominence in any history book. That should change as a result of Spielberg’s noble effort.

What is more surprising is that the story has also remained invisible in the home nation of the slaves, Sierra Leone. I heard an interview on National Public Radio a week before the release of Amistad in which a playwright from Sierra Leone told how he first learned of the rebellion from a white teacher in 1986. His recent play about La Amistad made his nation aware of this lost piece of history and will open in America in mid-1998. Incidently, in the film, Spielberg wisely chose to cast actors from Sierra Leone in the slave roles, thereby enhancing the film’s portrayal of the culture shock the slaves experienced.

It would be wonderful if Amistad sparked millions of meaningful conversations between black, brown and white people about race. Unfortunately, in part because some prominent African-Americans seem troubled about the white origins of the film, this may not happen. That lost opportunity would be tragic indeed. The OJ Simpson case and the dismantling of affirmative action appear to have further polarized points of view on the significance of race in our society. Many whites (and a few blacks) bitterly resent so-called "playing the race card" in the courtroom, at school or on the job. Yet, what is on that card is still very different for African-American and white people. This lack of understanding about what is being "played" distorts the process and leads to further resentment on both sides. Any white person who after watching Amistad still believes that the time has come to forget the sins of the past and move on should watch the film again with an African-American and discuss it afterwards.


The film achieves some notoriety through its addition to the lexicon of lawyer names of yet another insult: "dung scraper." The abolitionists who take up the cause of the rebellious slaves are approached by an ambitious young lawyer, Roger Baldwin, played convincingly by Matthew McConaughey and described by one reviewer as a mutton-chopped "antebellum ambulance chaser." The Africans, who don’t speak a word of English, decide that the Baldwin, whose function is a mystery to them, reminds them of a dung scraper from back home. (Those viewers who saw Jurassic Park may remember that Spielberg has a certain disdain for the profession, as evidenced by the dining habits of his reptiles.)

The young lawyer, much to the horror of the moralistic abolitionists, analyzes the case in an unemotional, lawyer-like fashion, likening it to a simple property dispute. Yet, from the outset, the posture of the case is cloudy. The legal process begins with what must be every judge’s basic nightmare. In a cramped, overcrowded federal district courtroom in Connecticut, a succession lawyers appears, each holding up writs and pleas and insisting on being heard, until there are five parties present, each claiming to have international treaties on their side.

The two surviving crew members and the Spanish government, under whose authority La Amistad sailed, each demand the return of the vessel and its human cargo. The United States supports the Spanish, but argues the slaves should be executed as murderous mutineers, giving a criminal flavor to the admiralty proceedings. The crew of the United States warship that recaptured La Amistad claims a one-third salvage interest in the vessel, under a maritime law incentive scheme that rewards enterprising seamen, even those in government employ, for retrieving lost property. (Mercifully, Spielberg chose to leave out the similar claims of some opportunistic Long Island residents.) British Naval officers appear as self-righteous witnesses who also ply international waters intercepting slave ships and freeing their prisoners. The movie begins to look like Roots meets Citizen Ruth, as these competing parties dogmatically pursue their causes, mostly oblivious to the welfare of the Africans whose lives and liberty are at stake.

Nevertheless, as Baldwin predicted, the resolution of the dispute boils down to one simple issue. Under international treaties in force for two decades, importation of African slaves to the Americas is illegal. Spain and the United States contend that the slaves in question were born in Cuba. The abolitionists claim that they were illegally imported, and thus the Africans are not slaves and their homicidal rebellion was justified by the law of necessity. Much of the story is devoted to Baldwin’s gathering of evidence that establishes the origins of the Africans, whose principle function at his point in the story seems to be their curiosity value for the Connecticut townsfolk who gawk as every day they trudge from jail to court in chains.

But there is a powerful twist to this otherwise simple case. United States President Martin Van Buren is running for re-election and is anxious to secure the electoral votes of southern states very nervous about giving any encouragement to slave rebellions. Throughout the Africans’ legal journey, Van Buren and his advisors work behind the scenes to rig the courts against them and the story at times seems primarily focused on this interference by the executive branch into the activities of judiciary.

The first tactic, thankfully unsuccessful, involves forcing a retrial before a young judge recently appointed by Van Buren. The film skips the Africans’ pro forma victory at the court of appeals, and instead focuses on the pressure the executive branch places on the Supreme Court. (A detail glossed over by the film is that the Supreme Court did not issue its ruling until after Van Buren had already lost the election.) One particularly interesting scene is a state dinner and a conversation between the Spanish Ambassador and President Van Buren. The Ambassador, puzzled over the unfavorable ruling by the district court, asks, "If you cannot rule the courts, how can you rule?" Van Buren hypocritically replies, "Our people believe it is the independence of the courts that ensures their freedom." Those who in present times question the notion of life tenure for judges might find this exchange of interest.

In a monologue which immediately follows, former Vice-President Calhoun threatens armed rebellion by the southern states over the slavery issue. Undoubtedly, the screen writers were trying to illustrate the pressures facing Van Buren and the nation in 1840, but having Calhoun commit treason at a state dinner seems a little over the top.

Of special note is Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of John Quincy Adams. When we first see former President Adams, he is a man well into his declining years. The film only hints at the fact that Adams was a one-term President, elected without an electoral college mandate and elevated to that high office as a result of fragile coalition in the Congress. Also an acclaimed former secretary of state, his idealistic goals as President were frustrated by factionalism. In the decade following his re-election defeat in 1828, he became a major force in the opposition to slavery.

As depicted in Amistad, the abolitionists repeatedly plead with Adams to help them with the case, which they know is being subjected to heavy political pressure. He refuses, appearing to have no stomach for the fight. But he gives Baldwin one key suggestion regarding trial advocacy: learn the human story of your clients and emotionally relate that to the court. As a result of this advice, the audience and the court learn of the inhumanity of slave trading and the movie and court case succeed. Beginning trial lawyers should take note.

Baldwin eventually prevails upon Adams to join their fight when they reach the Supreme Court. Although the movie does not indicate this, Adams reportedly argued before the Supreme Court for eight and half hours on behalf of his clients. Presumably, this was prior to the days of oral argument time limits and the establishment of decent theaters in Washington. Adams must have been a good orator, but sadly, the text of his remarks was not included in the official report of the case because he failed to submit it. The reporter does note that much of what Adams said was not considered by the court in the opinion, authored by Justice Joseph Story, 40 U.S. 518, 566 (1841). It may be safe to assume that Adams spent considerable time putting a human face on the dispute.

Ironically, Justice Story (portrayed in the film in a cameo by retired Justice Harry Blackmun in his first screen role) held the seat on the Court that had first been offered to Adams some thirty years before. Adams had declined, presumably in favor of his presidential aspirations.

Two curiosities of note: Spielberg chose not to tell the story of a legal slave named Antonio who was onboard La Amistad. By order of the district court he was returned to his owner in Cuba, presumably because it was established that he was born in the Americas. The film also glossed over the final resolution of the case. The district court holding had directed the President to transport the Africans back to Africa at government expense based on the government’s own argument that the Africans had illegally brought a slave ship into U.S. waters. In its appeal, the government dropped this argument, which the Supreme Court noted was absurd. (Persons involuntarily forced into slavery cannot themselves be guilty of slave trading.) So the Supreme Court followed the circuit court holding and merely declared the Africans to be free persons. With no help from the government, it took a year for Abolitionist groups to arrange for their return to Sierra Leone. But these facts might have diluted the otherwise happy ending.

We can also thank Spielberg for an idea to increase public interest in the normally undramatic proceedings of the Supreme Court. Why not have criminal defendants in the courtroom in chains when the Supreme Court announces rulings? A marshal could then either release them on the spot, or, in the case of capital offenses, escort them to a nearby death chamber. The public would love it.

Click here for commentaryMartin Mhando comments on Amistad.

Click here for studio websiteOfficial studio web site link

Click here for hyper linkThe Internet Movie Database

Click here for reader commentsComments of other readers

Click here to send mail Mailbox for reply to Picturing Justice commentaries