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"Amistad" and the Abuse of History

“It’ll make a helluva story,” Steven Spielberg reportedly said upon first learning of Thomas Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s List. And then, warily: “Is it true?”

The story of Amistad, Spielberg’s latest foray into what he calls “socially conscious” film-making, shares the improbable qualities of its predecessor. Not only is it, like Schindler’s List, ready-made for Hollywood—savage injustice with a happy ending—but once again history itself has furnished the necessary license. Just as Oskar Schindler, Nazi industrialist turned humanitarian, really did exist, and really did save a number of Jews from the Holocaust, so, too, 53 captured West Africans really did stage a bloody mutiny aboard a Cuban slave schooner in the summer of 1839; did try to sail home, only to wind up, through the trickery of the surviving Spanish crew, in the waters off Long Island, where they were promptly seized by an American naval ship; and finally, after eighteen months of imprisonment in Connecticut and a protracted legal battle, were indeed declared free, thanks in part to the last-minute intervention of no less a personage than former President John Quincy Adams, who successfully argued on their behalf before a U.S. Supreme Court then dominated by Southerners.

Given such promising material to start with, it is no surprise that Steven Spielberg’s big-screen rendering of these events is a “helluva story.” But is it true?

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The narrative center of Spielberg’s Amistad is the remarkable person of Joseph Cinqué, the leader of the uprising. Played by the imposing Djimon Hounsou, a native of Benin, Cinqué is introduced in the film’s harrowing opening scene as we watch him linger in quivering, vindictive fury over the prostrate body of the captain of the Amistad, whom he has just killed. This image of primitive rage fades quickly, however. As the plot unfolds, Cinqué emerges in a far different light: a figure of unshakable pride and dignity; a man of keen sensitivity, heartsick for home and modest to a fault about his own exploits; and a shrewd observer of his new surroundings, increasingly involved in the legal defense of the Amistad prisoners. Throughout, he bears himself with the brooding self-assurance of a captive African prince.

Of course, Cinqué and his luckless companions are not left to fight alone. Their cause is championed by two American abolitionists: the black Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), a wealthy ex-slave, and the white Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård), a devout merchant whose sympathy for the Africans is tainted by a fixation on their value as potential martyrs. In due course, Joadson and Tappan hire an unkempt young lawyer-on-the-make named Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), whose exclusive interest in the case, until he develops an acquaintance with Cinqué, is collecting his fee; the disconsolate Africans dub him “dung scraper.”

Arrayed against the Amistad Africans and their supporters is the administration of President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), who finds himself drawn into a most unwelcome diplomatic and political firestorm. Invoking its treaty rights, the Spanish crown insists on the return of its citizens’ property. More troubling still for Van Buren as the election of 1840 approaches, the Southern states are determined to see violent resistance to slavery punished; they want the mutineers shipped back to Cuba, where they face certain execution.

The courtroom defense of Cinqué and the others provides the skeleton of the movie’s plot, fleshed out by recollections of the Africans’ treatment on the slave ship that brought them to Cuba. Cinqué relates in court—and we see in a nightmarish flashback—the unspeakable horror of this transatlantic “middle passage”: the packing of naked, chained men and women into a narrow hold; the merciless whipping of insubordinates; the starvation and execution-by-drowning of the weak and the sick. As the legal and moral tide turns in the Africans’ favor, the Van Buren administration forces aside the original judge and jury, replacing them with a presumably controllable lone jurist named Coglin (Jeremy Northam); but, defying all expectations, this judge too comes out dramatically for the Africans, compelling an inevitable appeal to the Supreme Court.

Enter, at last, John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins). Though the abolitionists Joadson and Tappan had repeatedly sought the aid of the irascible seventy-four-year-old ex-President—a renowned opponent of slavery, although not himself an abolitionist—Adams agrees to join Baldwin only at this final stage. But the two lawyers are not on their own. From his cell, Cinqué peppers them with questions and advice about their strategy, prompting Adams at last to bring the leader of the Africans to his family home in Massachusetts. Unshackled at Adams’s command, Cinqué strolls with the former President through his greenhouse—admiring, pointedly, an African violet—and then confers with the wizened “chief,” assuring him through a translator:

We have my ancestors at our side. I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me.

Once before the Supreme Court, Adams leaves behind the legal technicalities that had dominated the earlier proceedings. Laying hold of the Southern claim that “slavery has existed as far back as one chooses to look” and is thus “neither sinful nor immoral,” he wonders with wistful indignation how his country could have strayed so far from the principles of the Declaration of Independence and from the example of its own ancestors, the founding fathers. Echoing Cinqué, he emphatically concludes that “who we are”—by which he means, who we must be—“is who we were.”

The Court’s nearly unanimous decision, read by the great jurist Joseph Story (portrayed here, in a cameo appearance, by retired Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun), is a final vindication for the Africans. A grateful Cinqué, speaking through a translator, queries Adams: “What did you say? What words did you use to persuade them?” To which the gruff Adams replies, after a moment’s thought: “Yours.”

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A deft piece of movie-making, Amistad is gorgeous to look at and persuasive in its evocation of period ambience. As the critic Stanley Kauffmann put it in the New Republic, the film is built “on texture,” from the frantic, bloodied fingers of Cinqué as he struggles to undo his chains to the liver spots on the bald pate of John Quincy Adams. The captive Africans wear perfectly tattered blankets; the prepubescent Spanish queen, perfectly arrayed taffeta. The film’s settings, from the grand sailing ships to the courtroom, often convey the feeling of elaborate tableaux vivants, contrived but on the whole effective.

Impressive, too, and by now much ballyhooed, are the lengths to which Spielberg has gone to ensure that the Africans are portrayed authentically. The black members of the cast, most of whom, like Djimon Hounsou, come from West Africa, were coached in Mende, the language of the Amistad captives, and speak it exclusively (but for a half-dozen words) with English subtitles. Even their manacles and chains, Spielberg has boasted, are real.

Atmospherics aside, the film is admittedly more of a mixed bag. The dialogue and score (by John Williams) descend to melodrama with painful regularity. And the featured American actors—Freeman and McConaughey—are plainly uncomfortable in their 19th-century skins. As performers they are put to shame by their English counterparts—Hawthorne, Hopkins, and Pete Postlethwaite (as the government’s attorney)—who at least have some notion of how to impersonate the body language and bearing of a more formal age. Hounsou, too, carries his part off with subtlety, using his expressive face and the unfamiliar cadences of Mende to great effect.

But it is nothing new to say that Spielberg is a master of visual storytelling or even that he is frequently a banal dramatist. Amistad asks to be judged on grounds other than these. Spielberg has insisted that it captures a “shared piece of American history,” and history, even at the movies, is not the same thing as verisimilitude, however artfully manufactured.

The facts at issue in Spielberg’s Amistad are not picayune details, quibbles over the compressing or simplifying of what is a very complex tale. Such things are to be expected in a dramatization. What Spielberg has done in relating this “shared piece of American history” is more fundamental. He has misrepresented, in a way that can only be intentional, the racial relations that form the very heart of the events he depicts.

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Consider, to begin with, Lewis Tappan and Roger Baldwin, two of the movie’s central white characters. By the end of Amistad, when the case goes to the Supreme Court, Tappan has completely disappeared from the plot, banished (apparently) for the sin of having welcomed the martyrdom of the Africans—a view, the black abolitionist Joadson charges, that reveals Tappan’s deep-seated hatred of them. In historical fact, Lewis Tappan was the prime defender of the Africans from start to finish. Far from being indifferent to their fate as individuals, he refused to prolong their suffering by pressing for more litigation. Far from being a closet racist, this co-founder (with William Lloyd Garrison) of the American Antislavery Society was extraordinary in his day for publicly condoning marriage between blacks and whites.

As for Roger Baldwin, whom Tappan helped hire to represent the Amistad Africans, he was hardly the scruffy, money-grubbing young attorney portrayed by McConaughey. In his late forties at the time, and a man of considerable public standing—he would be elected governor of Connecticut three years later and U.S. Senator after that—Baldwin was already well known for his abolitionist sympathies. For the hundreds of hours he spent defending the Amistad Africans, he was paid a token fee; it was basically pro-bono work.

Spielberg’s revisionism with respect to Tappan and Baldwin serves a wider purpose: namely, the denigration of Christianity, especially of the white, Protestant variety. The essential connection between the two men, which the movie elides, was an organization called the Amistad Committee. Tappan was the engine behind this group of prominent and militantly evangelical abolitionists; it is they who raised money for the case, publicized it, and carried it through to its successful conclusion. But the Amistad Committee makes no appearance in Amistad, and the wider abolitionist movement, when it is visible at all, appears only on the periphery. It appears, moreover, as a pitiful object of derision, in the form of earnest, dour matrons and pasty-faced men, vacantly singing hymns and waving crosses at the Amistad captives (who call them “miserable-looking”).

Amistad does leave us with one admirable Christian, the courageous Judge Coglin, who is a Catholic. He, however, is a complete fabrication, as is the episode of the Van Buren administration’s outlandish interference in the judicial process that he thwarts. Although there was much to blame in the President’s handling of the case—he was prepared to whisk the Africans back to Cuba, without chance of appeal, in the event of a favorable ruling—his administration never stooped to the villainy attributed to it in Amistad.

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If the white characters in Amistad are made to take their historical lumps, the black ones are allowed to create a history of their own. Debbie Allen, a co-producer of the film and the only African-American among its makers, “assumed the role,” according to Newsweek, “of guardian of black culture.” Having sold Spielberg on the project in the first place, she kept the story from “becoming too much about the white people who fought for [the Africans'] freedom in court.”

What this meant in practice is best seen in the film’s treatment of the black abolitionist Theodore Joadson. Reviewers have noted two things about this character. First, that he is entirely fictional (a central circumstance in the much-publicized lawsuit for plagiarism against Spielberg’s company, DreamWorks SKG, by the novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud). Second, that he is an empty vessel, leaving Morgan Freeman “seriously underused” (Janet Maslin in the New York Times) in an “underwritten role” (David Ansen in Newsweek).

Having established these two salient points, however, no critic has asked why Spielberg went to the bother of having Theodore Joadson at all. The answer is obvious: he is necessary to maintain a racial quota. Amistad never departs from a strict one-to-one ratio between black and white lead characters. The fictional Joadson has to be paired with Cinqué in order to balance Baldwin and Tappan (whose exit from the movie neatly coincides with the arrival of John Quincy Adams). To such grotesque lengths is this balancing act taken that at no point in Amistad—in stark defiance of historical reality—do we see the white protagonists alone plotting the defense of the captives.

But the character of Joadson performs a more subtle task as well. A thoroughly assimilated American—educated, proper, given to patriotic speechifying—he serves as a deferential, desiccated foil to the soulful and defiant Africans. For the real purpose of the makers of Amistad is a radical redressing of the historical balance. As Debbie Allen told the Los Angeles Times:

Whether you’re talking about art, or literature, or music, the real history has just been castrated—left out—and great historians have done it. It’s . . . one culture wanting to be dominant, and not really acknowledging the contributions of a culture that was far beyond and centuries ahead.

For Spielberg, this particular species of reverse racism is by no means a new note: the superiority of African to Western culture is a theme of his 1985 movie The Color Purple (from the novel by Alice Walker), in which Africa serves as a redemptive counterexample to benighted America. In Amistad, what most stands out about the Africans is, indeed, the bold and unyielding nature of their Africanness, a point driven home not just by their “Mende-only” dialogue but also by their insistence on African burial rites, their exuberant chants and dances, and, most dramatically, by Cinqué’s arresting invocation of his ancestors.

The film’s starry-eyed, grandiose view of African culture is deeply problematic in itself. But it also grossly falsifies the real experience of the Amistad captives. Joseph Cinqué was, by every account, a man of uncommon dignity and presence. As the poet William Cullen Bryant memorialized him: “All stern of look and strong of limb,/His dark eyes on the ground—/And silently they gazed on him/As on a lion bound.” But he was also, it should be emphasized, a twenty-five-year-old rice farmer from the African interior, brutally torn from a life of primitive simplicity and transformed, in a matter of months, into a cause célèbre.

The instrument of this transformation was the abolitionist movement, which was certainly not the wan and slightly foolish phenomenon depicted by Spielberg. It was, rather, an immensely sophisticated and self-assured social movement, one that took its mission—its civilizing mission—quite seriously. This meant that Cinqué and the others were hardly accommodated in their native practices. Rather, they were instructed right from the start in Christianity and English—by Yale divinity students, no less.

And the lessons took. Thus, in a typical letter from the Africans to their defenders, Cinqué complained to Baldwin of their treatment at the hands of Colonel Stanton Pendleton, the jailer, calling him a “bad man” who “did not think of God” and whose soul would be “lost . . . to hell.” When informed of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Africans replied, “We very glad—love God—love Jesus Christ—He over all—we thank Him.” Then they knelt in prayer.

In Amistad, things are very different. Christianity is not a positive force in the lives of the captives; to the contrary, when it is not merely a distraction, it is a force for moral weakness. Thus, when one of the Africans, Cinqué’s only real rival among the captives, becomes so impressed by the story of Jesus that he embraces the Christian faith, the effect is to render a once-fierce warrior tame, an object of Cinqué’s well-deserved pity and disdain. One need not be a defender of the evangelizing practices of the abolitionists to note the violence done by Spielberg’s treatment, not only to them but to those whose lives they undertook to transform by their ministrations.

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As wards in both a legal and an educational sense, the real-life Africans in the Amistad affair had nothing to offer toward shaping their own defense except their first-person testimony. John Quincy Adams did meet Cinqué, as the movie maintains. But it is inconceivable that he would have done so at his own home, treating Cinqué as an equal (“I’m being very honest with you; anything else would be disrespectful”), calling himself a “chief” and American citizens “villagers” in an exercise of moral equivalence, and modestly accepting instruction in African spirituality. The actual meeting took place in Westville, Connecticut, where the Africans were being held, pending appeal.

The scene has been well imagined in William Owens’s Black Mutiny1 a carefully researched historical novel about the Amistad affair specifically cited by the moviemakers as “a major source of reference material”:

“Cinqué! Grabo!” Baldwin called.

The two men left their woodchopping and came to the room. They shook hands with Adams and greeted him in forced English. It was a meeting of primitive man and the finest product of civilization.

“These are the two chief conspirators,” Wilcox [the U.S. marshal] said.

It was apparent they had not understood his words. They bowed to him, smiling as if he had paid them the highest compliment. . . .

“We read,” Cinqué said, his manner dignified, his face proud with achievement.

Colonel Pendleton brought a Bible and asked Cinqué and Grabo to read. Laboriously they spelled through a few verses of the New Testament. These men, Adams thought, accused of piracy and murder, were like children with a hornbook.

Far from meeting as equals, Adams and Cinqué encountered each other across a profound social divide. If Amistad pretends otherwise, it is only because Cinqué, by the movie’s lights, has to be seen to be freeing himself in court just as he did on board the slave schooner. Strangely enough, the same need also drives Amistad‘s hagiography of Adams, who—alone among the white characters—has his role ennobled. Framed throughout by patriotic symbols, Adams embodies a pristine America just as Cinqué embodies a pristine Africa, and the two must collaborate in the end.

But—or perhaps for that very reason—Adams’s resulting speech to the Supreme Court is an incoherent jumble. Leave aside the fact that it fails to do justice to the full obsessive eccentricity of Adams’s actual eight-hour performance, which focused on the Van Buren administration’s kowtowing to the Spanish crown and the South. (In private, Justice Story called the speech an “extraordinary argument . . . extraordinary . . . for its power, for its bitter sarcasm, and its dealing with topics far beyond the record and points of discussion.”) Even on its own terms, Adams’s speech in Amistad fails.

The problem lies not with his appeal to “the very nature of man” or to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence. That is all well and good, and faithful to the record. The problem lies in the opposite direction: with the deliberate overlay of African-style ancestor worship.

“Who we are is who we were,” Adams intones in Cinqué-influenced words as his gaze alights on marble busts of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the rest. But in thus shifting from the transcendent principles held by these men to their status as ancestral persons, the Adams of Spielberg’s imagining comes weirdly close to embracing the view that he has condemned just moments before. Is it necessary to point out that “who we were,” in the case of many of the American founding fathers, was slaveholders—or that in Southern opinion, slavery was acceptable precisely because it could be traced (to use Cinqué’s pious words) “far back to the beginning of time”?

No, John Quincy Adams was not open to the ways of the Africans, any more than were the abolitionists of his day. All of them were close-minded in a most profound way, quite certain in their devotion to Christian truth and natural rights. That, indeed, is why they came to the aid of the Amistad captives in the first place.

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Among the bien-pensants, only the columnist Frank Rich of the New York Times has registered a serious complaint about Amistad. The movie, he wrote, is a “diversion” from the difficult racial issues of our day, “brought to us by [President Clinton's] campaign contributors at DreamWorks”: “The whole country can, after all, agree that slavery is bad—and still come to blows over affirmative action.”

Rich is right about the political affiliations of Amistad‘s makers, but wrong to consider the movie a “diversion” or a “form of escapism.” To the contrary, Amistad is a major artistic offensive in the current debate over race. It is, in fact, an extraordinary example of racial preference, giving blacks a prominence and importance they did not have while distorting or denying the role of whites. And, being “only” a movie, it is conveniently far removed from the remedial reach of a referendum-wielding electorate or the various courts that have recently struck down similar policies of “affirmative action.”

To the judges installed in this particular corner of the public square, the question of whether Spielberg has been true to the historical record is of no interest. It is enough for them that Amistad evokes the distant horrors endured by enslaved Africans during the “middle passage.” “[T]hese spare scenes are among the most wrenching ever put on film,” gushed Jonathan Alter in a Newsweek cover story. For Janet Maslin of the New York Times, “the stark, agonizing depiction of the captives’ Atlantic crossing” was enough to establish the “irrefutable” worthiness of Amistad. David Denby, who devoted a third of his review in New York magazine to this same short segment, called it the “best thing in the movie,” staged by Spielberg “with a power that perhaps he alone in film history is capable of.” On this view, the only truth with which Amistad need bother is the visceral one.

The popular critics can perhaps be forgiven for taking the movie’s claims of accuracy at face value. After all, Amistad can point to an impressive list of academic consultants, including the historian John Hope Franklin, head of the President’s race-advisory board, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard. (Given the movie’s casual regard for facts, one does wonder what these eminences could possibly have been consulted about: the costumes?) But more informed observers who have weighed in on the movie have been every bit as credulous as the daily and weekly critics. George F. Will—alas—anointed Amistad “a nuanced, truthful film about America’s racial history.” Writing in the New Republic, the historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton noted some of Amistad‘s more obvious historical “lapses and manipulations” but nevertheless gave the movie his benediction, proclaiming that Spielberg had “succeeded in capturing the political and cultural nuances,” and that the various characters in the movie “challenge the racial stereotypes that distort contemporary American discussions of race, not least in Hollywood.”

In point of fact, Amistad does not challenge the racial stereotypes that distort contemporary American discussions of race. Mirroring our mendacious system of counting by race, of which it is a faithful expression, it confirms and extends those stereotypes. What is more, it will go on doing so for years to come. As has been widely reported, DreamWorks has already sent thousands of high-school and college educators a free “learning kit” to help them “integrate the lessons of this landmark film” into their history classes. Free educational screenings are sure to follow, as they did with Schindler’s List. For the foreseeable future, Amistad is destined to be shown to our children as the featured movie of Black History Month. By this means and others, Steven Spielberg’s film will long contribute to making it harder and harder for us to tell the truth, either about our history or about ourselves.

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Footnotes

1 Originally published in 1953, it is available in a new paperback, Plume, 322 pp., $12.95. The best scholarly treatment of the affair, which I have relied on throughout, is Mutiny on the Amistad by Howard Jones (1987), recently reissued in paperback by Oxford University Press, 271 pp., $12.95.

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About the Author

Gary Rosen is the former managing editor of COMMENTARY .




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