‘Amistad’: facts & fiction
Workers World, 22 January 1998
The movie ‘Amistad’ is both a moving epic and socially stimulating.
Is it a typical Hollywood film? Of course, it is politically and historically flawed, and it gushes with bourgeois morality. But how many films tackle the issue of racism? Very few.
This alone makes a movie like ‘Amistad’ well worth seeing.
The movie focuses on a little-known armed insurrection carried out by 53 heroic Africans against their slave masters on July 1, 1839. The name of the slave ship was La Amistad, which means friendship.
The leader of the insurrection was Singbe Pieh of the Mendi nation located in Sierra Leone, once a colony of Britian. Singbe is better known by his slave name: Joseph Cinque.
Djimon Hounsou--a 33-year-old actor/model who is originally from Benin, a former French colony--plays Singbe. Seeing Hounsou's portrayal of Singbe is alone worth the price of admission. He brings a mix of proud dignity, righteous determination and incredible charisma to the character.
Hounsou has already been nominated for a Golden Globe award for best actor by the foreign press.
ACCLAIM AND CONTROVERSY
The movie has been a subject of critical acclaim and controversy.
Right wingers who say slavery is history and no one needs to be reminded about it have attacked the movie. Such racist views only confirm why more movies exposing slavery and showing Black history are needed.
A more consequential controversy is a lawsuit charging literary theft by the movie's script writers. Barbara Chase- Riboud, an African American author, filed a $10 million lawsuit against director Steven Spielberg and his studio, Dreamworks, for allegedly stealing passages from "Echo of Lions," her book about the Amistad rebellion.
In addition, those who believe that a film about the struggle against slavery--a very important chapter in the Black struggle--should have a Black director have challenged the movie. Director Spielberg is white.
The executive producer of "Amistad" is Debbie Allen--a well-known African American dancer, choreographer, actor and director. She had asked Spielberg to direct the movie.
But Black film director Spike Lee has questioned whether a white director could truly bring a Black perspective to a story like "Amistad." Even a brilliant director like Spielberg cannot know what it is like to be Black growing up in a racist society.
If a Black director had made "Amistad," most likely the story would have been told more from Singbe's viewpoint and the white lawyers would have been portrayed as more cynical.
The movie failed to stress who Singbe Pieh was. Hollywood has a long history of racist, degrading depictions of African peoples. A mass audience, especially in the United States, should learn much more about Singbe.
WHO SINGBE PIEH WAS
Singbe was born in 1813 in a highly advanced and well- organized village dominated by farmers but also including skilled artisans. Rice was the main food staple.
When he was captured, millions of African peoples had already been kidnapped and sold into slavery, mainly by Spain and, in the earlier centuries, Portugal.
In January 1839 Singbe was kidnapped and sold to Pedro Blanco, a Spanish slave trader at a notorious slave fortress called Lomboko off the coast of West Africa. He reportedly spent two months at Lomboko before being sent to Cuba to work on the sugar plantations.
During this period, England and the United States had outlawed slave trading on the high seas. But owning slaves was still legal in the United States and certain parts of the Caribbean. So even though the slave trade was supposedly illegal, it continued.
Singbe, like some 20 million to 30 million of his sisters and brothers, suffered unspeakable atrocities during the notorious Middle Passage. The movie painfully and realistically shows this for a few brief moments.
During this horrific, brutal trip to the Americas, hundreds of African people would be forced into dungeons. Chained together, they were treated worse than animals, packed tightly like sardines, starved and beaten into submission.
Sailors raped the women. Newborn babies were thrown overboard.
Historians have estimated that anywhere from one-third to one-half of the Africans perished during the Middle Passage, a great number by suicide. Even though Singbe was severely beaten for not standing at attention for inspection, he was determined to survive and not end up as a slave.
Once Singbe arrived in Havana, he and the other 52 Africans were bought for $450 apiece. They were then to be transported on La Amistad to the Cuban city of Puerto Principe.
It was on this journey that the Africans rebelled, took over the ship and killed the captain. They ordered the ship's crew to sail back to Africa. But the vessel took a meandering course and ended up being seized by the U.S. Navy.
The Africans were then put on trial for the death of the captain.
The movie spends most of its time on the trial against the captured Africans. The legal argument centered on whether the Africans were born as slaves or were born free.
The question of the morality of slavery is raised indirectly. But the slave question inside the United States is obscured.
FREE LABOR VS. SLAVE LABOR
In the movie, a great deal of attention is paid to John Quincy Adams, superbly played by Anthony Hopkins. Adams, who was a former president, was the lawyer for Singbe and the other Africans before the Supreme Court in February 1841.
In the movie, Adams is portrayed as a compassionate, decent guy. But Adams came from a rich family. His father was John Adams, the second president of the United States and a member of the Federalist Party, which was dominated by the emerging Northern capitalists. Neither father nor son owned slaves, but they did not lift a finger to help abolish slavery, even legally. Adams made it clear that his legal defense was not meant to challenge the Constitution, which made slavery legal.
The movie doesn't really explain the motivation of Adams-- a ruling-class figure who had never before actively opposed slavery.
The movie could have shown that at the heart of the Amistad trial was the mounting conflict between two social systems--slavery and free labor.
The slave system in the South--once a foundation for economic expansion in the United States--was holding back the development of capitalist industry. The Southern plantation aristocracy ruled over an agricultural empire that was unable to develop industry. The Northern capitalists were prospering and expanding.
The Civil War broke out 20 years after the Amistad events because the two systems could no longer live peacefully side by side.
John Quincy Adams supported the expansion of capital into the West through the Louisiana Purchase at the expense of the Native peoples. But if slavery expanded into the West, it would undermine wage labor and hold back the expansion of industry and trade there.
At the time of the Amistad trial, over half the Supreme Court was Southern slave owners. The case reached the Supreme Court after President Martin Van Buren threw out a lower court verdict that the mutineers had been illegally kidnapped from Africa and therefore should be set free. Van Buren cherished his relationship with the slaveholders in Congress and did not want to risk losing the 1840 election, which he did anyway.
While the movie presents a positive picture of the Supreme Court because of its decision to free the mutineers, it leaves a false impression of the court. The ruling was on a narrow question of international law and did not in any way challenge slavery in the United States.
In fact, this same Supreme Court was responsible for legitimizing slavery with the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857--which stated that African slaves were ‘three-fifths human’ and therefore had no rights that white men had to respect. At the time, only white men had rights under the Constitution.
ROLE OF THE ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT
Another drawback of the movie is the way it depicts the abolitionist movement. The abolitionist movement is shown as passive. In reality, the abolitionist movement took up the cause of the Amistad defendants and raised money for their defense.
When the Supreme Court did not offer free passage for the Africans back to their homeland, abolitionists led by Lewis Tappan organized meetings to raise money. People paid to hear Singbe speak in his native language and to see the Africans perform native dances.
Singbe spoke to a crowd of thousands in New York about his fight against slavery. It took seven months to raise enough money for all the Africans to return home.
The movie ‘Amistad,’ even with its political limitations, remains a progressive, anti-racist movie. That is probably why it didn't make the top-10 list of any well-known movie critics this year. The movie has hardly received the kind of media attention that Spielberg blockbuster movies are accustomed to receiving.
On the other hand, probably some people who have gone to see the movie because Spielberg was the director would not have otherwise seen a film that supports an armed insurrection against slavery. The audiences have tended to be multinational.
Young Black students have been organizing to see the film because they are interested in their African heritage. This is a country still dominated by whites, so it is very important to be able to see a movie that attempts to show a part of history otherwise unknown to them.
The movie also offers the progressive movement the opportunity to reach out to the audience with literature promoting the Jericho '98 action to free political prisoners, the struggle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and other anti-racist struggles.
In fact, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Singbe have a lot in common. Both are political prisoners held captive by the same racist, oppressive system.
Abu-Jamal recently wrote an illuminating piece entitled
La Amistad and the American Law. He concludes:
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