The movie Amistad is a based on a true story in 1841 about a group of Africans from Sierra Leone who are illegally kidnapped from their homes by Spanish slave traders. During the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, Cinque, “who was a tribal leader in Africa, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship” (IMDb), killing all the Spaniards on board save for two navigators, whom the Africans keep alive to guide them back to Africa. However, the ship continues to sail toward the Americas where it is captured by the United States Navy. A legal battle over the status of the Africans ensues, with one side arguing that the Africans are murderers and should be punished as so, but with the defense being that with the transatlantic slave trade illegal, the Africans “were free citizens of another country and not slaves at all” (IMDb). Ultimately, the case reaches the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams defends their case. The Supreme Court rules in favor of the Africans. They are then allowed to return to Africa.
I was drawn to select Amistad as my cultural artifact partly because it is among my favorite historical movies, featuring two of my favorite actors in Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, and Anthony Hopkins as well as my favorite director/producer in Steven Spielberg. I was also intrigued by the historical aspects the movie, as I like to think of myself as a bit of a history buff. The first sequences are rather brutal, if accurate representations of conditions experienced during the Middle Passage by all Africans wrongfully taken from their homeland to be sold into slavery in the New World. These sequences are quite moving due to their historical accuracy. The film’s ability to move me emotionally helped draw me to it as my cultural artifact. The movie shows a story that is reflective of the time period between the outlawing of the transatlantic slave trade and emancipation, when abolitionist movements were in full swing despite slavery still a key driver of the United States’ economy.
The film Amistad was directed and produced by Steven Spielberg. Steven Spielberg is a famous American director responsible for many critically acclaimed and award winning movies such as Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Schindler’s List, to name a few. During his career, he has been “known for his impressive historical films” (Biography.com) and various humanistic issues ranging from terrorism, war, the Holocaust, and the transatlantic slave trade as seen in Amistad. It is Spielberg’s interest in portraying humanist issues that inspired him to create a movie about La Amistad.
The film was released in 1997, but the events that are portrayed in the film took place in 1839. This time period was significant for African Americans because it was during a tense stretch of American history when the transatlantic slave trade was illegal, but the domestic slave trade was still legal. These years between the outlawing of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 and emancipation saw many abolitionist movements arise, with some, along with John Quincy Adams in the film, declaring slavery “the last battle of the American Revolution” (Amistad). This was also the time when the domestic slave trade in the United States became the largest and most sophisticated the world had ever seen.
The events depicted in Amistad are significant to the time period in which they occurred because they reflected a time in American history when the entire nation was divided over the existence of slavery. In the movie, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Roger Sherman Baldwin, an abolitionist lawyer, addresses the case of the Africans, and argues not that they were potential slaves and thus property of those who kidnapped them, but rather that they were free people with free wills and consciousness. This basis for his argument was a basis for the abolitionist argument as a whole. Historically, the events that occurred on board La Amistad and those that transpired in the courtroom regarding the legal status of the Africans, added fuel to the abolition fire that eventually flared up in the Civil War. These events’ significance to the abolitionist movement and to increasing tensions between the North and the South during the first half of the 19th century has not faltered with the passage of time. The events depicted in the film were quite well-known to most historians but “not to the public at large” (IMDb) and so the movie helped bring the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and a moving story of abolition to public attention.
My cultural artifact relates to what we have learned in class in several ways. One way is that the movie portrays the Middle Passage in a very historically accurate way. We learned that the Middle Passage was a very brutal experience for would-be slaves. They would be crammed in the cargo holds of shipping vessels and given “mashed beans or peas mixed with salted, rotting fish” (Wilder 54) as sustenance. The Africans on board La Amistad faced similar conditions. The treatment of the Africans on board the ship in the movie was quite brutal, and extremely inhumane, as multiple are shown being beaten. We also learned how slavery was a business, and that refuse slaves were virtually useless upon arrival in the Americas. This aspect of slavery was portrayed in the movie in a violent scene in which sick Africans are chained to a weight and thrown overboard to save money and when the Spaniards realized “they greatly underestimated the amount of provisions required for their journey” (Amistad).
We also learned of various forms of resistance, and two instances of resistance are present in the film. The first, is suicide. A woman throws herself overboard to escape her situation of potential slavery. The second, and certainly the most integral event in the film, is armed and violent resistance. The Africans rise up against their captors and kill most of the whites on board. As we learned in class, armed revolts were the rarest form of resistance, albeit the most dramatic.
“Amistad.” IMDb. 25 Dec. 1997. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118607/>.
Amistad. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins. Dreamworks, 1997. Netflix.
“Steven Spielberg Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://www.biography.com/people/steven-spielberg-9490621>.
Wilder, Craig Steven. “Bonfires of the Negros.” Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 47-77. Print.
“Amistad – Trailer.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJFDOvGMD0U>.