In 1839, the revolt of Mende captives aboard a Spanish owned ship causes a major controversy in the United States when the ship is captured off the coast of Long Island. The courts must decide whether the Mende are slaves or legally free.
As the American Civil War continues to rage, America's president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.
Amistad is the name of a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the U.S. in 1839. It is carrying a cargo of Africans who have been sold into slavery in Cuba, taken on board, and chained in the cargo hold of the ship. As the ship is crossing from Cuba to the U.S., Cinque, who was a tribal leader in Africa, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship. They continue to sail, hoping to find their way back to Africa. Instead, they are misdirected and when they reach the United States, they are imprisoned as runaway slaves. They don't speak a word of English, and it seems like they are doomed to die for killing their captors when an abolitionist lawyer decides to take their case, arguing that they were free citizens of another country and not slaves at all. The case finally gets to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams makes an impassioned and eloquent plea for their release.Written by
M Parkinson, Sarasota, FL, USA
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. See more »
The movie suggests that the Spanish slave fortress Lomboko was taken and demolished by the British navy even yet before the return of the Africans to Sierra Leone.
In reality the freed men where taken back to Africa in 1842. The ransacking of the slave factory happened only in 1849. See more »
[to Pedro Montes]
That one wants us to sail them back. That one thinks he can sail all the way back without us.
See more »
The events depicted did not historically occur at Fort El Morro See more »
The board of film censors of Jamaica have excised the opening scenes, depicting a violent slave uprising on a ship, from all copies of the film released in Jamaican theatres. See more »
I can say that back when I was a lad going to school in the Fifties and Sixties in Brooklyn, New York USA, we never learned of such things as the Amistad revolt. For that matter we learned nothing of Denmark Vesey's or Nat Turner's slave revolt. We learned about the Civil War and what led up to it. But the plight of the slaves themselves, not a word.
So when Steven Spielberg did this film about an incident known to serious historians, but not to the public at large, I say BRAVO to Mr. Spielberg.
What has to be remembered here is that the while slavery was legal, the importation of slaves had been banned for quite some time by 1839. The Africans depicted here are forbidden to be slaves in the first place.
It was hoped that when the Constitution got going in 1789 that slavery might die on its own accord. But unfortunately a guy named Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which was a device for picking through the pesky seeds in the cotton fibers. That made cotton THE crop of the south and gave slavery a new lease on life. And as you see in Amistad anything that threatened the life of what the south was pleased to call it's "peculiar institution" was a call to arms.
Amistad gives us the portrait of two United States presidents. The current one in 1839 is Martin Van Buren who's probably best known for being the real founder of the Democratic party political machine. He succeeded Andrew Jackson on March 4, 1837 and promptly was greeted with a bank panic that led to a depression. His chances for re-election in 1840 were not looking good to start with and he was exceptionally vulnerable to southern pressure. Ironically enough his last bid for public office was in 1848 as the third party presidential candidate of the Free Soil anti-slavery party. Nigel Hawthorne captures Van Buren, a man who always played his cards close to the vest.
A very different sort was John Quincy Adams our sixth president from 1825 to 1829. His presidency was probably the least successful time in his whole public career which starts as teenager during the American Revolution. He undertook a series of diplomatic assignments culminating with being Secretary of State under James Monroe from 1817 to 1825. Of course he was the son of our second president John Adams and like his father refused to do even the normal political things that could have gotten him re-elected.
As an ex-President he was serving in the House of Representatives in 1839 one of only two whoever went back to Congress after their presidential term was up. By this time he was a passionate abolitionist and the pleading of the cause of the Amistad slaves was an opportunity and a challenge. Anthony Hopkins captures the man who was now called Old Man Eloquent down to his clipped New England speech.
What happens briefly is that a cargo of Africans on a Spanish slaver revolted mid sea and killed all but two on board. Those two were preserved because the Africans didn't know anything of seamanship. The two remaining steered the ship Amistad to Long Island where the whole story is discovered. The Africans become a legal and political football all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Other performances to note are Morgan Freeman as black free man Theodore Joadson, Stellan Skarsgaard as abolitionist Lewis Tappan, Matthew McConaughey as attorney Roger Baldwin and most of all Djimon Hounsou as Cinque the leader of the African's revolt.
Before his story is told the attorneys have to learn the language and Spielberg graphically portrays their struggle for communication. Hounsou's portrayal of a man in an alien world who's only desire is to go back where he came from will sear your very soul.
Amistad is grand entertainment and a needed history lesson about man's need for and willingness to fight to be his own master.
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