History provides Hollywood with stories ripe for the silver screen. Many of them have been reviewed by The Legionnaire. I started this blog with intention of giving a Catholic perspective on film, but I also have this history degree that I like to utilize in my reviews. With this in mind, I can tell you unabashedly that most of the time film gets the past wrong. Some of this I understand, not as a historian but as someone who accepts that not every last detail will make it past editing. Movies are told for dramatic purposes. There is nothing interesting, for example, in the various historical markers you can find around the country that proclaim that on a given spot at a certain date, nothing happened. I cannot imagine that being cinematic fodder. And while Hollywood certain opts for the more significant happenings of the past, if you were to squeeze every moment of an event into a film it would be boring, even to me. Hence, while I am not going to nitpick each detail of Amistad (1997) as that would be exhausting for both of us, know that this one is about as good of an example as you are going to get of history on film.
What I did not mention in the introduction to this review of Amistad is that it deals with one of the more painful and tragic aspects of American History: slavery. It is 1839, and a shipment of Africans is on its way to the United States having first stopped in Cuba. The chattel on board understands what awaits them, and one of their number, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) leads an uprising that kills most of the Spanish crew, except for Captain Jose Ruiz (Geno Silva) and Pedro Montes (John Ortiz), first mate. Cinque and his fellow captives demand to be taken home, but they have to rely the Spaniards to navigate for them and they are stalling. Eventually, their ship is caught by an American naval vessel, and the would-be slaves are taken to the United States. This poses an awkward problem for the Americans. The United States had outlawed the importation of new slaves in 1808, and if the Africans are who they are trying to convince everyone that they say they are, then they should be sent back to their homeland. In order to determine their fate, they stand trial and legal representation is arranged for them by interested parties, namely those involved in the Abolition Movement. They are Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård) and Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), and they choose the seemingly disinterested Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) as the lawyer. Baldwin sees the case initially for what it was: a simple matter of property law, much to Tappan and Joadson’s horror. Nonetheless, he argues and wins on the grounds that, despite the forged documents provided by the Spanish as to Cinque and his compatriot’s origins, they were born free in Africa. The victory earns the attention of more powerful people in the United States, particularly Senator John C. Calhoun (Arliss Howard) of South Carolina, who sees the possibility of these Africans going free as a threat to the institution of slavery, one entrenched in his home state. Thus, he puts pressure on President Martin van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) to have the case appealed. Seeking their own higher authority, Tappan and Joadson ask former President John Quincy Adams (Sir Anthony Hopkins), now a sitting Senator from Massachusetts, for assistance. For the time being, he refuses. Instead, Baldwin sets about further proving their origin. He seeks out someone who speaks Cinque’s African dialect, and finds one in the form of Ensign Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of the American Navy. They also call upon other experts to establish some of the other practices of the illegal international slave trade. Once more, Baldwin triumphs. And yet again the case is appealed, and this time all the way to the Supreme Court. At this point, Adams agrees to represent Cinque and the others. In one of the more stirring speeches in cinematic history, Adams successfully argues for the release of the Africans, thus paving the way for them to be returned home.
I left out some parts of my description of Amistad because I do want to talk about some of the historical inaccuracies. One of the first places to start is with the speech I just so glowingly praised. I love it because it covers not only the specifics of the case, but it has some wonderful philosophical arguments against the institution of slavery. It is just a shame they were not actually said. And that is kind of the underlying problem of the film. The case of the Amistad, which is also the name of the ship on which Cinque and his fellows were found at sea, was more about the legality of them being brought here in the first place rather than whether or not slavery was wrong. It was wrong, of course, but to the nineteenth century American, outside of the Abolition Movement, it was more an unfortunate fact of life than anything else. It is a complex, especially then, mindset, and one I do not think the filmmakers wanted to tackle. Today (at least I hope) we understand how truly awful is slavery, and that message needed to be driven home in order for audiences to connect with the film. To be sure, the principal people you see in the film were all real enough, though clearly dramatized. So, too, were the events. The historian in me reviles at the changes they decided to make because if I were comfortable with altering the past, then I might as well burn my doctorate. At the same time, I understand it because some parts of history are too painful to ignore, nor should they be.
One particular moment in Amistad bears further analysis from a Faith perspective. Again, we turn to Adams’ remarkable final monologue where he is quoting a defense of slavery by Calhoun. In it, Adams’ former vice-president reminds people that slavery is in the Bible, and thus as natural a state of man as any. It is left at that, and more often than not Hollywood will tell its viewers that Christianity was a tool of enslavement, physically then and philosophically now. I am here to tell you that slave owners did attempt to justify their owning of other humans by referencing the fleeting passages in the Bible where the institution is mentioned. If you read more closely, though, it also says that those held in bondage should be freed on the seventh year, the jubilee year. Somehow, that never gets recalled either in the nineteenth or twenty-first centuries. Further, Christians have been among the most fervent anti-slavery advocates in history. The faith of those involved in the Abolition Movement speaks to this fact. Catholicism itself has been against slavery from the start. One might argue with that point, saying that the Spanish enslaved millions when they began colonizing the Americas. True enough. However, no one who confessed the Faith was to be held in bondage. Look up the history of Fort Mose some time and you will see for yourself what I mean. But, no, let us remind viewers that Calhoun used Christianity to defend slavery.
I do have my criticisms of Amistad, clearly. There are also some brutal scenes in it, particularly during the uprising aboard the title ship. Actually, all the moments of the passage between Africa and the Americas are difficult to watch. They depict the horrors of being treated as cargo on a slave ship in painful detail that produce the right emotion, which should be revulsion. Or anger. Or everything in between. Take your pick, they all work. Because of this, it is not a movie for all ages, and it is rated R for good reason. Still, it is important movie to see, and hopefully it will get you more interested in the subject and inspire you to do your own research.