Sir Anthony Hopkins astounded the crew by delivering the entire seven page courtroom speech in a single take. Steven Spielberg was so in awe, he couldn't bring himself to call him Tony, and insisted on addressing him as Sir Anthony throughout the shoot.
Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) is a fictional creation. In real-life, it was Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr. (Austin Pendleton), a Yale professor of theology and sacred literature, who discovered James Covey, the Mende sailor who served as a translator for the Amistad captives. As depicted in the film, Gibbs learned to count to ten in Mende, and wandered around the docks of New York City repeating the numbers, until Covey heard and recognized his own language, and spoke to the Professor.
John Quincy Adams was the only President to be elected to the House of Representatives after his Presidency (Andrew Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate). While considered an undistinguished President, his seventeen years in the House earned him the respect of colleagues of all parties.
In real-life, Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) was an older, and more experienced lawyer than his character is in the movie. A grandson of Roger Sherman (signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), Baldwin was in his late 40s, and a member of the Connecticut State Senate when he took the defense of the Amistad captives. After the Amistad case, Baldwin was elected Governor, and later U.S. Senator for the state of Connecticut. He died in 1863.
The film prompted a lawsuit by writer Barbara Chase-Riboud, who alleged the screenplay for the film plagiarized her book "Echo of Lions", a fictionalized account of the Amistad incident. The book had been pitched to Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Amblin executives met with Chase-Riboud, turned down that project, then made this film. Amistad writer David Franzoni had previously been hired, by a different production company, to write a screenplay based explicitly on "Echo of Lions", and his Amidstad script replicated fictional elements, characters, and situations invented by Chase-Riboud. Spielberg's lawyer called the suit baseless, and disparaged the Chase-Riboud book, while Franzoni claimed he'd never read it. The suit was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount, on the condition the author make statements publicly supporting the movie.
Baldwin's statement at 33:30 that "the only way one may sell or purchase slaves is if they are born slaves, as on a plantation" refers to the fact that the importation of slaves into the United States was made illegal in 1808. Article 1, section 9 of the U.S. Constitution protected the slave trade for twenty years following ratification, making 1808 the earliest that such restrictions could legally be enacted. This law was commonly flouted, as the events of the movie depict. However, there was a definite effort on the part of the United States to enforce the law, and the role of the Navy was expanded, to include patrols off the coasts of Cuba and South America to intercept slave ships.
Though he's shown sleeping through the congressional debate about the Smithson bequest, John Quincy Adams was the chief Congressional supporter of what would eventually become the Smithsonian Institute.
The re-production of the schooner Amistad was built at the Mystic Seaport Museum, and some of the film was shot at the same location, specifically the scene where the interpreter is found by the defense lawyer.
John Quincy Adams addresses the Supreme Court, and states that when faced with trouble, the Mende people invoke the help of their ancestors. As he mentions this, we see a portrait of his father John Adams just over his left shoulder.
President Van Buren and former President Adams find themselves on opposite ends of the court case in this film. In real-life, Van Buren would later run for re-election in 1848, as a member of the Free Soil party, which opposed the expansion of slavery. His Vice Presidential running mate, was John Quincy Adams' son, Charles Francis Adams.
Before action was called, for one of the courtroom scenes, an extra from Rhode Island, who was playing a courtroom guard, accidentally tripped and knocked into Morgan Freeman, who was standing close by. Steven Spielberg called out on his microphone to the extra, "Sir, please do not knock over Morgan Freeman!"
Morgan Freeman, who played an ex-slave turned abolitionist, appeared in this movie with Chiwetel Ejiofor. In Glory (1989), Morgan played an ex-slave, who ends up a soldier in the Union Army, along with Denzel Washington. Denzel and Chiwetel appeared in Inside Man (2006).
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Beginning during Cinque's lifetime, rumors circulated that he became a slave trader after his return to Africa. ("Oxford History of the American People", 1965 states: "The court, with a majority of Southerners, was so impressed by the old statesman's eloquence, that it ordered Cinque and the other Negroes set free, and they were returned to Africa. The ironic epilogue is that Cinque, once home, set himself up as a slave trader.") However, recent research disproves these rumors (Joseph Yannielli, "Cinque the Slave Trader: Some New Evidence on an Old Controversy", Common-Place, Vol. 10, October 2009). It is believed that Cinque, and the other freed prisoners from the Amistad, returned to Africa in 1842, at which time, Cinque's home country of Sierra Leone was being torn apart by civil war. Cinque and his companions from the Amistad kept in contact with members from the local Christian mission, and this contact provides today's researchers with pieces of information regarding his later life. After a while, Cinque left the area to trade along the coast of West Africa. Most stories of his later life are simply rumor. George Thompson's "Thompson in Africa: or, An account of the missionary labors, sufferings..." (1852) puts forward the idea that Cinque had moved to Jamaica. Others held that he had become a merchant, or a chief, perhaps trading in slaves. However, this rumor of Cinque engaging in the slave trade has been seriously disputed. The origin of these claims appears to be statements made by early twentieth century Author William A. Owens, who claimed to have seen letters from AMA missionaries, suggesting Cinque was a slave trader. While it is likely that some of the freed Amistad prisoners probably did engage in the slave trade upon their return to Africa, today, most historians agree that Cinque was not amongst them, and these claims are false.