Spielberg’s Amistad

Enchained slaves in Amistad

The noble Cinque

The Abolitionists

The lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) and his clients

The Great Man, John Qunicy Adams


The horrors of slavery and modes of representation in Amistad and 12 Years a Slave
by Douglas Kellner

Solomon Northup’s testimonial 12 Years a Slave (1853) tells the heart-wrenching story of how a free black man living in New York State was captured by slave traders and forced to live as a slave on southern plantations in the 1840s under inhuman and oppressive conditions.[1][open endnotes in new window] Writing up and publishing his experiences, Northrop presents a searing portrayal of the evils of slavery that influenced abolitionist arguments and movements in the pre-Civil War period as debates over slavery intensified, leading to the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Steve McQueen’s 2013 film provides a powerful cinematic rendition of Northup’s 12 Years a Slave and has been affirmed as one of the one most powerful films on slavery ever produced, winning the Academy Award for best picture, and multiple other awards in 2013.[3]

In this article, I will contrast Gordon Parks’ relatively unknown PBS “American Experience” film of 1984 Solomon Northup’s Odyssey with McQueen’s film, although I open with a look back at Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1998), which presents a 1839 slave revolt on a ship bound to the Americas and the subsequent trial of the rebels. The Amistad rebellion and trial, like Northup’s book, influenced the abolitionist movement and is a significant, although often forgotten moment in U.S. history. Hence, the current discussions of McQueen’s highly acclaimed film provide the opportunity for a look backwards at a painful moment in U.S. history, and for discussion of different modes of cinematic representation of slavery. Accordingly, I will contrast Spielberg’s film with Parks and McQueen’s presentations of slavery in their versions of Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. Although Spielberg’s Amistad contains many features of dominant U.S. ideology and an individualist Hollywood narrative which informs Spielberg’s liberal cinema, it is perhaps the most modernist and one of the most compelling of Spielberg’s films that deserves a second look and comparison with Park and McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

I will accordingly first examine Amistad which provides a broader panorama of the system and complex effects of slavery in U.S. life and history than Parks’ powerful narrative of Northrop’s book and McQueen’s more concentrated and intense focus on the horrors of slavery in 12 Years a Slave. I contrast Parks’ use of classical realist modes of representation with McQueen’s aestheticized and modernist version.[4] Juxtaposing different cinematic representations of slavery and cinematic renditions of Northup’s slave testimony, I show how McQueen’s film provides a modernist version of Northup’s text that forces the audience to experience the horrors of slavery, while Parks uses a more conventional realist narrative to tell Northrop’s story and depict the institutions of slavery. These films, I believe, are among the best English-language cinematic efforts to engage the “peculiar” and arguably monstrous U.S. institution of slavery that continues to shape our history today into the Obama era.

Steven Spielberg’s Amistad

Spielberg’s historical epic Amistad depicts the utter inhumanity of slavery through the story of an almost forgotten 1839 slave revolt aboard a Spanish slave ship off the coast of Cuba. A cargo of Africans who had been captured in Sierra Leone, loaded into a slave trader that sailed to Havana, sold into slavery in Cuba, and put aboard the ship La Amistad to be transported to a life of slavery on the other side of the island of Cuba, revolted and took over the ship. Many of the crew and the blacks working with them were killed, although two of the Spanish crew were spared to help the rebels navigate the ship to what was hoped would be a safe port. The Spaniards, however, managed to aim the direction of the seized ship toward North America where it was boarded by U.S. naval troops off the coast of Long Island, who arrested the mutineers and took them to prison in New London, Connecticut. There, they would go on trial in a media spectacle that captured the attention of the nation and furiously fuelled the fateful national controversy over slavery.[5]

La Amistad is ironically the Spanish word for “friendship,” while the story of the Amistad rebellion demonstrates the unfriendly and inhuman nature of the slave trade. In Spielberg’s narrative, “Amistad” also refers to the friends of the Africans in the abolitionist movement, who saw the inhumanity of slavery and joined with rebellious slaves to fight and abolish the institution of slavery. The Amistad rebellion and the subsequent trial played a significant role in mobilizing abolitionists at the time, and thus was a significant event leading to the Civil War, as anti-slavery forces strongly side with the rebels while pro-slavery forces sided with the ship owners and Spanish government which demanded the return of the ship and prisoners.

As historian Marcus Rediker notes, the story of the Amistad rebellion was well-known in the build-up to the Civil War with abolitionists and journalists writing extensively on the event, playwrights, novelists, and songwriters memorializing the rebellion and the trial, and with the public closely following the long trial and its aftermath. Yet by the 20th century, Rediker claims that the story of the Amistad rebellion was largely forgotten until Spielberg’s film brought again the story to wide public attention.[6]

Spielberg tells how the film’s producer Debbie Allen brought the story to him, and that he saw it as a serious epic history lesson that should be presented to the U.S. public.[7] Spielberg had just begun his new Dreamworks studio and sought a prestige property that would help promote his studio as a producer of important movies. He was at the time one of the most important and influential Hollywood directors with megahits like Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the Indiana Jones franchise (1981, 1984, 1989, 2008), E.T. (1982) and the Jurassic Park films (1993 and 1997 with the 2008 film directed by Joe Johnson). Spielberg had also attempted to make more serious films like The Color Purple (1985), based on Alice Walker’s novel of a young black woman growing up in the South, and Empire of the Sun (1987), a rendering of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel of growing up in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in World War II. While these films received a mixed audience and critical reception, his film Schindler's List (1993), about a German businessman who saved Jews in the Second World War, received enthusiastic reviews and won Spielberg his first Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. Amistad thus follows Spielberg’s practice of mixing serious epic historical dramas with his more popular entertainment films, taking on an important episode in the revolt against slavery and struggles toward freedom and equality in U.S. history.

Amistad opens dramatically during a storm, highlighted by flashing strobe-effect lighting in the opening sequence, which cuts to a close-up that turns out to be the eyes of a black man. Spielberg cuts rapidly, showing splotches of blood on the man’s hand, a metal nail being ripped out of the plank of the deck, followed by a long shot of the man using the nail to break the lock of the manacles that bound him to the ship. Cinque frees another, and a rapid montage shows groups of black men breaking free of the manacles that had kept them in bondage.[9] With dramatic music, thunder and lightening, fragmentary images, and quick cutting, the modernist opening produces a jarring sense of dislocation, intensified as the blacks are torn loose from their chains and appear on deck, resolved to take over the ship.

The fast editing, strobe-like effects during the storm, and dramatic action continue as the black men attack the ship’s captain who fires back, hitting two of the attackers and stabbing one with a bayonet attached to the end of his rifle. The white captain is overpowered, however, by the rebellious Africans, and he is stabbed to death by a powerful black man who emerges as the leader of the slave revolt and who will eventually be introduced to the audience as Joseph Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), who emerges as the central figure of the film.

The initial uprising depicts the group effort of the rebels who fight the ship’s armed crew with knives, sabers, and sticks, seizing control through guerilla like action. Yet the image of a powerful leader is highlighted during the rebellion sequence, first, beginning the literal process of freeing the Africans from their chains, and then in images of Cinque standing out from the group and framed in heroic poses, illuminated by bright lighting, and thunderous music during the uprising. Throughout the film, Cinque will be positioned as the natural leader of the rebels who is the center of cinematic representation and the key narrative link between the major characters.

Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski reportedly constructed the film's visual style by deploying images from the paintings of Francisco Goya, whose horrors of war and incarceration pictures helped shape opening images of the Africans’ imprisonment in the ship and revolt, and then the later prison scenes during the trial.[10] Spielberg and his crew also intended to provide accurate historical representations of the Amistad rebellion and subsequent trial and to tell much of the story from the standpoint of the Africans.[11]

The opening and succeeding images portray the Africans as radically other to the white-skinned Europeans involved in the slave trade and the Americans who must sort out their fate through machinations in the U.S. political and legal system. The African sounds and language are initially untranslatable and frightening to Western ears, and throughout the film the incommunicability between the Africans, their Spanish slave-trading captors, and the Americans putting the African rebels on trial in their mysterious justice system is highlighted. Yet the film’s fierce humanism eventually establishes communication and understanding between the African captives and their abolitionist U.S. allies who work to free the rebellious slaves and enable their return to Africa.[12]

After the dark, stormy, and Goyaesque opening sequence, the film flashes a title “1839” and cuts to a clear blue sky and placid sea, as the rebels wake up in charge of the ship. For a brief period of time, the Africans control the Amistad and attempt to direct it back toward Africa, but the treacherous Spanish ship owners Ruiz and Montez, who they saved, cleverly sail West toward the sun (and presumably Africa) in the day, but tack North at night toward America. A title “Six weeks” follows with the ship short on water, and when they come upon Long Island, New York, a strange sequence shows rich Americans on a yacht enjoying a dinner with black servants and classical music, while the liberated slave ship passes by and both sides look upon the other in wonder, highlighting the class and cultural differences between the groups. The Amistad rebels freedom is about to come to an end, however. When Cinque and some of the rebels go ashore to get fresh water, a U.S. Navy vehicle encounters the Amistad, and the sailors observe that it is manned by a motley crew of black people. The Americans board the ship, seize it, and arrest all the rebels who will go on trial for mutiny and murder.

The rest of Spielberg’s Amistad unfolds as a legal drama, with scenes cutting from the bright lighting in courtrooms and law offices to grimmer scenes of the rebels in prison. Initially, wealthy abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard)[13] attempt to persuade former U.S. president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to defend the rebels, but he declines, portrayed as more interested in cultivating exotic plants in a greenhouse garden than involving himself in demanding struggles in the public sphere. Eventually, the abolitionists sign up a real estate lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to defend the rebels, and in the film he provides a highly articulate and ultimately effective defense, focusing on the issue of property, and whether the rebels belonged to the ship owners or not.[14]

Amistad establishes the geo-political framework of the legal case in a striking shot that cuts from a close-up of Cinque’s gleaming eyes in captivity to the eyes of a young woman looking at her reflection on a metal object, and an establishing shot shows her to be Isabella, the Queen of Spain (Anna Paquin). The U.S. President Martin van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) is first depicted as having no interest whatsoever in the Amistad case and the freedom of the African captives, and throughout is represented as weak and vacillating, fearing losing Southern votes in his re-election campaign if he sides with the Africans and apparently having no strong convictions concerning slavery and freedom of blacks.

The Amistad case is depicted as proceeding fitfully through the U.S. legal system which is portrayed as strange and confusing from the point of view of the Africans. Their initial encounter with their abolitionist allies show them perceiving the hymn-singing and praying Christian abolitionists as “miserable” and sickly, and confronted with their voluble young lawyer Baldwin they think he looks and acts like an “elephant dung scraper,” although later one concludes that perhaps this is what they need. After a federal District Court in New Haven rules that the Amistad rebels are guilty of "insurrection on the high seas," and will not be released, the Amistad captives are understandably confused and angry, and they are condemned to stand trial in a complicated court case.

Spielberg’s film conveys the convolted legal claims of property ownership by Spain, the United States, the Spanish owners of the slaves and of La Amistad, and the U.S. captain and first mate of the US ship that took the Amistad rebels into custody. Scenes with the Spanish Queen Isabella II, whose government are demanding return of the ship and the slaves, and U.S. president Martin van Buren dramatize the geopolitical dimensions of the case, while a dinner with van Buren and southern slave apologist Senator John Calhoun (D-SC) highlight the domestic issues involved in the Amistad trial. At a dinner for the U.S. political elite, Calhoun explains to the Spanish ambassador Calderon that the Northern states consider pro-slavery Southerners as “immoral” and inferior, which Calhoun claims may be so in terms of amassing wealth. But, Calhoun asserts to the crowd, taking a dig at rich Northerners, eliminating slavery could well destroy the U.S. economy and a anti-slavery conclusion to the Amistad affair might lead to Civil War in the U.S..

Aware of the political stakes, van Buren and his allies plot to put what they think is a sympathetic and malleable Judge in charge of the case. Lengthy courtroom scenes follow with the Amistad defense stressing that the slaves are not property but are humans, and, moreover, the Amistad rebels were not slaves on Cuban plantations as the prosecution, Spanish government, and slave traders Ruiz and Montez claim. The defense argues that their defendants are Africans who were captured in their native land, sold into captivity, and brought to Cuba where they were purchased and sent on the Amistad to journey to their new place of enslavement on the other side of Cuba. The trial proceeds fitfully and in one dramatic scene, Cinque stands up and repeatedly says “give us free, give us free,” dramatizing the element of struggle for freedom involved in the case.[15]

The theme of “home” and return to home has long been a major theme in Spielberg’s films and informs the thematic of Amistad. One of the most poignant sequences of the film unfolds as Baldwin attempts to bond with Cinque and learn about his home and his experiences. Flashbacks in bright light show a happy Cinque with his wife and children in a green and verdant Africa, followed by harrowing scenes of his capture and the infamous Middle Passage across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas. This dramatic sequence demonstrates the monstrous conditions of the Passage, with Africans packed into a space below deck without proper food, water, exercise, or ventilation. One slave is shown throwing himself overboard in utter despair. Another sequence shows the slave traders flinging a packet of rocks into the ocean, followed by enchained slaves, drowning individuals who were sick or they could not feed. In a courtroom scene, a British captain, who had manned British slave patrol ships off the shore of Sierra Leone to intercept illegal slave ships, testified that it was common to throw rebellious, sick, or slaves they could not properly feed overboard and that the inventory of the Tecora, the slave ship that brought over the Amistad captives to Cuba, demonstrated that a significant number of slaves had been discarded on the voyage.

The Amistad defense convincingly makes the case that the rebels are Africans who were captured and enslaved against their will, and the young Judge rules that Ruiz and Montez are guilty of illegal slave trade and will be imprisoned at once, while the Africans are free to go home at the expense of the U.S. government. The joy is short-lived for van Buren and the U.S. government appeal the ruling and throw the case up to the Supreme Court. Again demonstrating the cultural difference and otherness between the blacks and whites, Baldwin has difficulty in explaining the U.S. legal system to Cinque who is understandably outraged by the decision, but is heartened to learn that a “big chief,” John Quincy Adams, a former President, will help defend him. A subsequent scene shows Cinque meeting Adams in his beloved greenhouse, and an African violet provide a bond of understanding between the two and hope that the Africans will eventually be able to return home.

John Quincy Adams begins his appeal to the Supreme Court by noting that Baldwin had clearly articulated the key issues in the case, but he makes a rousing presentation that justice has not been done in the case. Adams notes that letters from Spanish Queen Isabella constantly refer to our “incompetent courts,” and Adams mockingly suggests that she apparently wants a court that does what she wants. The argument that the independence of U.S. courts is a virtue of the system was made in the film earlier when as an aside at a dinner party, a Spanish diplomat complained about the problems with the U.S. “independent” courts, and a gentleman affirms that this is precisely their virtue, an argument made in the concluding scenes of Amistad.

In the culminating crescendo to his speech Adams deftly situates the trial in the context of the American revolution, while answering an argument made recently in the U.S. government journal Executive Review which argues that slavery goes back to ancient times and is the “natural state of mankind.” Adams retort that instead it is freedom which is the natural state and “the proof is the lengths to which a man will go to regain it once taken.” Raising his voice, Adams thunders:

“He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try against all odds, against all adversity to get home.”

Obviously, Cinque and the Amistad rebels are the referent here, and Adams concludes his case to free them and allow them to go home by evoking the Constitution and Declaration of Independence with its ringing affirmation that “All men are created equal [with] inalienable rights… life, liberty’ and so on and so forth.” Recalling a conversation with Cinque the previous evening, he notes that “when the Mende encounter a situation where there appears no hope at all, he invokes his ancestors.” Clinching his argument Adams appeals to U.S. tradition, walking to a wall with portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, his father John Adams, and other founding fathers. Noting how he rarely invoked his father, Adams concludes:

“We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, ourselves. Give us the courage to do what is right and if it means civil war? Then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.”

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