Amistad (film)

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Amistad
Amistad-Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Produced byDebbie Allen
Steven Spielberg
Colin Wilson
Written byDavid Franzoni
StarringMorgan Freeman
Anthony Hopkins
Djimon Hounsou
Matthew McConaughey
Nigel Hawthorne
Stellan Skarsgård
Harry Blackmun
Anna Paquin
Music byJohn Williams
CinematographyJanusz Kamiński
Edited byMichael Kahn
Production
company
Distributed byDreamWorks Pictures
Release dates
  • December 10, 1997 (1997-12-10)
Running time154 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$36 million
Box office$44,229,441
 
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Not to be confused with La Amistad.
Amistad
Amistad-Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Produced byDebbie Allen
Steven Spielberg
Colin Wilson
Written byDavid Franzoni
StarringMorgan Freeman
Anthony Hopkins
Djimon Hounsou
Matthew McConaughey
Nigel Hawthorne
Stellan Skarsgård
Harry Blackmun
Anna Paquin
Music byJohn Williams
CinematographyJanusz Kamiński
Edited byMichael Kahn
Production
company
Distributed byDreamWorks Pictures
Release dates
  • December 10, 1997 (1997-12-10)
Running time154 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$36 million
Box office$44,229,441

Amistad is a 1997 historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg based on the notable uprising in 1839 by newly abducted Mende tribesmen who took control of the ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. It became a United States Supreme Court case of 1841.

Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, and Matthew McConaughey had starring roles. David Franzoni's screenplay was based on the book Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (1987), by the historian Howard Jones.

Plot[edit]

The schooner La Amistad is carrying Africans abducted from Sierra Leone and sold in Cuba into slavery. One of the slaves, Sengbe Pieh, most known by his slave name "Cinqué", initiates a rebellion on the ship. Most of the crew are killed. The Africans keep the ship's owners alive, believing they can navigate the vessel back to West Africa.

Six weeks later, the vessel is low on food and fresh water when they sight land. Unsure of their location, a group take a boat to shore to fetch fresh water. La Amistad is found by a United States military vessel; the Spaniards tricked the Africans, sailing up the Atlantic coast. Amistad is impounded. The Africans are imprisoned while a court determines ownership of the vessel and whether the slaves will be freed. Great Britain, the United States and Spain have prohibited the international slave trade, but the Spanish owners claim the slaves were born on a Cuban plantation and are thus legal domestic slaves.

In Washington, D.C., John Quincy Adams, former President and sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts, meets leading abolitionists Theodore Joadson, a freed slave, and activist Lewis Tappan. Intent on gaining the Amistad Africans' freedom, the men seek Adams' help with the court case. Adams claims he neither condemns nor condones slavery.

The current President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, is under pressure by the 12 year old Spanish Queen Isabella II, who demands compensation for the ship and the market value of the slaves. At a preliminary hearing, the Africans are charged with "insurrection on the high seas". The case has conflicting claims of property ownership by Spain, the United States, the Spanish owners of the slaves and of La Amistad, and the American captain and first mate of the US vessel that took the ship into custody, as laws of the sea entitle them to salvage rights, including the slaves. The abolitionists enlist the help of an attorney specializing in property law: Roger Sherman Baldwin.

Baldwin and the abolitionists, along with Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr., a professor of linguistics, try speaking with the Amistad Africans, but neither side can comprehend the other. As the hearings drag on, Baldwin and Joadson approach Adams for advice. Adams advises them that, in court, the side with the best story usually wins. Unable to tell Adams what their story is, they realize it is imperative they communicate with the Africans. At the city docks they find a black sailor in the Royal Navy, James Covey, who speaks an African language.

Using Covey as a translator, Baldwin and his companions speak with Cinquè. He is allowed to give his account, through Covey, in the courtroom. Cinquè claims that he was a farmer and family man, kidnapped by slave-hunters and taken to Lomboko, an illegal slave facility in Sierra Leone. He and hundreds of other captured Africans were loaded onto the transatlantic slave-ship Tecora. Upon arriving in Cuba, Cinquè was sold at a slave market and purchased by the owners of La Amistad.

District Attorney William S. Holabird and Secretary of State John Forsyth press their case for respecting property rights, dismissing Cinquè's story as fiction. While exploring La Amistad for evidence, Baldwin finds a notebook that gives accounts of their illegal slave-trading.

Presenting the notebook as evidence, Baldwin calls expert witnesses, including Captain Fitzgerald, a British naval officer assigned to patrol the West African coastline to enforce the British Empire's anti-slavery policies. Judge Coglin dismisses all claims of ownership of the Africans. He orders the arrest of the Amistad's owners and authorizes the United States to convey the Amistad Africans back to Africa.

Speaking with the Spanish Ambassador to Washington, Senator John C. Calhoun from South Carolina attacks President Van Buren; stressing the economic importance of slaves in the South, Calhoun suggests that if the government frees the Amistad Africans the South will go to war. President Van Buren orders the case appealled to the US Supreme Court, which is dominated by Southern slaveholder justices.

Joadson and Baldwin break the news to Cinquè. Needing a knowledgeable ally, Baldwin and Joadson meet again with John Quincy Adams. Aware that Cinquè refuses to talk to Baldwin, Adams invites Cinquè to his home. After speaking with him, Adams decides to assist the case.

At the Supreme Court, John Quincy Adams passionately defends the Africans. The court authorizes the release of the Africans and their transportation to Africa, if they so wish. Cinquè bids farewell to his American companions.

British Royal Marines assault the Lomboko Slave Fortress, freeing Africans from its dungeons. With the fortress evacuated, Captain Fitzgerald orders it destroyed. Van Buren loses his re-election campaign. Cinquè and his fellow Africans return to Sierra Leone accompanied by James Covey. Cinquè finds his country in civil war and his wife and child missing, likely sold into slavery. Isabella II continues to argue with seven more US Presidents about the Amistad case, but her hopes for "compensation" finally perish when the American Civil War erupts, ending slavery.

Cast[edit]

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun appears in the film as Justice Joseph Story.

Production[edit]

Actress and director Debbie Allen had run across some books about the mutiny on the ship, La Amistad, and brought the subject to HBO films, which chose to make a film adaption of the subject. She later presented the project to DreamWorks SKG to release the film, which agreed. Steven Spielberg, who wanted to stretch his artistic wings after making The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), was interested in directing it for DreamWorks, which he also co-founded as well. Spielberg was an unlikely person to tackle the Amistad story, since his previous picture about black characters, The Color Purple, had been badly received by the black community.

Filming took place in the Marble House mansion which was used for the exterior and interior court scenes. Filming moved to Sonalyst Studios, with the opening scene using a sound stage in Universal Studios was used. Production then went to Puerto Rico for the Africa scenes and the fortress building.

Post Production work was done rarely with Spielberg, due to his commitment to another DreamWorks film, Saving Private Ryan.

Music[edit]

Amistad
Soundtrack album by John Williams
ReleasedDecember 9, 1997
Recorded1997
GenreScore
Length55:51
LabelDreamWorks Records
John Williams chronology
Seven Years in Tibet
(1997)
Amistad
(1997)
Saving Private Ryan
(1998)
Professional ratings
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic4/5 stars
Filmtracks4/5 stars
Movie Wave3/5 stars

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack[edit]

The lyrics from "Dry Your Tears, Afrika" (including the reprise) are from a 1967 poem by French-speaking Ivorian poet Bernard Binlin Dadié. The words are primarily in Mende, one of Sierra Leone's major languages.

Historical accuracy[edit]

The Supreme Court decision reversed District and Circuit decrees regarding Africans' conveyance back to Africa. They were to be deemed free, but the U.S. government could not take them back to Africa, as they had arrived on American soil as free people.[1]

Many academics, including Columbia University professor Eric Foner, have criticized Amistad for historical inaccuracy and the misleading characterizations of the Amistad case as a "turning point" in the American perspective on slavery. [2] Foner wrote:

The film version of Adams' closing speech before the Supreme Court and the court's decision bear no resemblance to the much longer historical versions; they are not even fair summaries.[3][4]

Several inaccuracies occur during the film's final scenes:

Reception[edit]

Critical response[edit]

Amistad received mainly positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 76% based on reviews from 59 critics, with an average score of 6.9/10.[6] Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today summed up the feelings of many reviewers when she wrote: "as Spielberg vehicles go, Amistad — part mystery, action thriller, courtroom drama, even culture-clash comedy — lands between the disturbing lyricism of Schindler's List and the storybook artificiality of The Color Purple."[7] Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars, writing:

"Amistad," like Spielberg's "Schindler's List," is [...] about the ways good men try to work realistically within an evil system to spare a few of its victims. [...] "Schindler's List" works better as narrative because it is about a risky deception, while "Amistad" is about the search for a truth that, if found, will be small consolation to the millions of existing slaves. As a result, the movie doesn't have the emotional charge of Spielberg's earlier film — or of "The Color Purple," which moved me to tears. [...] What is most valuable about "Amistad" is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims.[8]

Box office[edit]

The film earned $44,229,441 at the box office in the United States, debuting at No. 5 on December 10, 1997.[9]

Awards[edit]

Amistad was nominated for Academy Awards in four categories: Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Original Dramatic Score (John Williams), Best Cinematography (Janusz Kamiński), and Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter).[10]

AwardCategoryNominee(s)Result
Academy AwardBest CinematographyJanusz KamińskiNominated
Best Costume DesignRuth E. CarterNominated
Best Original Dramatic ScoreJohn WilliamsNominated
Best Supporting ActorAnthony HopkinsNominated
American Society of CinematographersOutstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical ReleasesJanusz KamińskiNominated
Art Directors GuildExcellence in Production Design for a Feature FilmRick Carter (production designer),
Tony Fanning, Christopher Burian-Mohr, William James Teegarden (art directors)
Lauren Polizzi, John Berger, Paul Sonski (assistant art directors)
Nicholas Lundy, Hugh Landwehr (new york art directors)
Nominated
Chicago Film Critics AssociationBest Supporting ActorAnthony HopkinsNominated
Most Promising ActorDjimon HounsouNominated
Critics' Choice Movie AwardBest FilmNominated
Best Supporting ActorAnthony HopkinsWon
David di DonatelloBest Foreign FilmSteven SpielbergNominated
Directors Guild of America AwardOutstanding Directing – Feature FilmNominated
European Film AwardsAchievement in World Cinema
(also for Good Will Hunting)
Stellan SkarsgårdWon
Golden Globe AwardBest Actor – Motion Picture DramaDjimon HounsouNominated
Best DirectorSteven SpielbergNominated
Best Motion Picture – DramaNominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion PictureAnthony HopkinsNominated
Grammy AwardBest Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for TelevisionJohn WilliamsNominated
NAACP Image AwardOutstanding Actor in a Motion PictureDjimon HounsouWon
Outstanding Motion PictureNominated
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion PictureMorgan FreemanWon
Online Film Critics SocietyBest Supporting ActorAnthony HopkinsNominated
Producers Guild of America AwardBest Theatrical Motion PictureSteven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin WilsonNominated
Political Film Society AwardsExposéNominated
Satellite AwardBest Actor – Motion Picture DramaDjimon HounsouNominated
Best Adapted ScreenplayDavid FranzoniNominated
Best Art Direction and Production DesignRick CarterNominated
Best CinematographyJanusz KamińskiWon
Best Costume DesignRuth E. CarterNominated
Best DirectorSteven SpielbergNominated
Best EditingMichael KahnNominated
Best Film – DramaSteven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin WilsonNominated
Best Original ScoreJohn WilliamsNominated
Screen Actors Guild AwardOutstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting RoleAnthony HopkinsNominated
Southeastern Film Critics AssociationBest Supporting Actor2nd place

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Story, Joseph. "The United States, Appellants, v. The Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, Her Tackle, Apparel, and Furniture, Together With Her Cargo, and the Africans Mentioned and Described in the Several Libels and Claims, Appellees", Supreme Court of the United States 40 U.S. 518; 10 L. Ed. 826 (January 1841 Term), Cornell University Law School. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  2. ^ Foner, Eric. "The Amistad Case in Fact and Film", History Matters. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  3. ^ "The United States, Appellants, v. The Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad...".
  4. ^ "JQA Adams Before the Supreme Court", History Central.
  5. ^ British Royal Navy ranks (including relevant time period) "Officer Ranks in the Royal Navy", Royal Naval Museum. Accessed February 15, 2012.
  6. ^ "Amistad Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 2011-02-15. 
  7. ^ Wloszczyna, Susan. "Amistad review", USA Today. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 12, 1997). "Amistad :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved Dec 8, 2011. 
  9. ^ "Amistad". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-12-08. 
  10. ^ "Academy Awards: Amistad". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-12-08. 

External links[edit]