Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Amistad – The History We Were Never Taught

Written by David Franzoni
Directed by Steven Speilberg

I have to admit that my greatest emotion after having seen this movie was anger… Anger that I never learned of this incident throughout my school years. Despite being an Advanced Placement student, not one of my courses ever touched on the La Amistad incident.

One could suppose that in the annals of history, the La Amistad incident was not a direct cause of the Civil War, as such things as The Dred Scott Decision and The Missouri Compromise are deemed to be. Still, it was a very important event in American History that had to do with the issue of slavery.

The question I keep asking myself is why wasn’t this taught?

The answer is that I just don’t know.

La Amistad is the name of a Spanish ship that was illegally bringing captured Africans to Cuba in 1839 to be sold into slavery. Before arriving in Cuba, the slaves stage an uprising and take over the vessel, intending to return to Africa.

The cinematography that begins this movie is magnificent and brilliant. We see an enslaved man in the shadows escaping his bonds and helping others do the same as it is raining and dark. The shadows played brilliantly on the screen and gave the whole uprising an even more chilling effect.

The ship manages to land off the coast of Long Island and the slaves are then taken into bondage once again. Now the legal maneuvering begins between the 11-year-old Spanish Queen, Isabella, the ship which captures the slaves and tries to claim them as proceeds, the two remaining crewmen of La Amistad, and the abolitionists who seem to want them freed.

Sengbe (portrayed excellently by Djimon Hounsou) emerges as the leader of the captured slaves. I have to say I actually enjoyed the use of subtitles in this movie and am glad they did not have him speak English. In fact, the first scene where Sengbe and the lawyer, Roger Baldwin (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) are trying to communicate has to be one of the funniest uses of subtitles I’ve seen.

As serious as this movie is, it does have its lighter moments. Seeing how the various Africans divided up their prison into different “lands” and then move Roger around between them was another bit of humor.

Watching Sengbe try to understand the intricacies of the American judicial system as well as the diplomatic relations at stake was enlightening. His symbolism in the story of how he killed the lion applied the same here; only the lion he had to slay was the American courts.

The first judge is removed from the case. A new judge who is Roman Catholic (so supposedly more in line with Spain’s position) and young with his whole career ahead of him is put in place. This is President Van Buren trying to manipulate the outcome of the verdict. The judge, however, after praying over the case commits political suicide and finds for the Africans, and orders them to be returned to their country.

I found this point of the movie to be very good as a Christian. How many of the supposedly religious people who lead our country would commit political suicide to do something they feel is morally correct? I’d venture a guess not many… The symbolism as the Africans attempted to interpret the bible through pictures was not lost on me either and I thought it added another great dimension to the story.

The next bit of maneuvering brings the case before the Supreme Court with seven of the nine sitting judges being Southern Plantation owners. At the behest of Baldwin, John Quincy Adams (portrayed magnificently by Anthony Hopkins) gives a rambling argument before the judges.

This is an important movie for students to see, even if it is a bit disturbing at times. There can be a great deal of discussion generated, both from a human aspect and a legal one. I found the scenes depicting the Africans’ capture and transport aboard the ships to be quite disturbing – even more than I remember Roots scenes being when I first saw them. This part is told by Sengbe (given the name Joseph Cinque by his captors) in flashback and is quite effective. Watching a woman die while giving birth after being captured, then another woman throws herself and the baby overboard while watching the punishment of other slaves left a knot in my stomach, as did the scene of slaves being thrown overboard to drown when the crew realizes it has miscalculated their provisions.

The other side of the coin is that the abolitionists are no saints either. They are looking at the situation as a way to further their cause, not as thirty-nine human beings whose lives are at stake. At one point there is a suggestion of martyrdom, although the Africans have no knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes.

As I mentioned before, the cinematography in just about every scene is fantastic. When the case is won the first time and the Africans celebrate with a bonfire while Baldwin tries to deliver the bad news about it being appealed to the Supreme Court is another great use of shadows and contrasts.

Steven Spielberg directed and his attention to every detail and camera angle is very apparent in the final product. Though it logs in at a long 2 1/2 hours, there is not a single unnecessary scene within.

All of the actors do a great job. Morgan Freeman’s character Joadson was a highlight for me, however. During the scenes, as they were looking for evidence aboard the slave ship and he was visualizing what the chains and shackles were used for, his face conveyed so much without uttering a word.

I have always maintained that when you’re dealing with Hollywood and history, it’s the job of Hollywood to generate enough interest in its historical subject that a viewer will seek out additional information. This movie definitely piqued that interest for me. A wide variety of links about the La Amistad incident can be found at

The DVD version of this movie contains the usual extras of the theatrical trailer, production notes, and a full cast and crew listing. Also present is a documentary on the making of the movie and I think that is also well worth watching.

3 replies »

  1. You say you wonder why this wasn’t taught in high school, even to Advanced Placement students….

    I can explain in three words: White supremacy. Texas.

    The first two words are key. Much of what we are taught (especially as public school students) when we are young is a bowdlerized, even romanticized version of history that only bears a superficial resemblance to the truth. And even in the most liberal sections of the U.S., there’s a reluctance to admit that the notion that white Christians built the “greatest country on Earth” as a “shining city on a hill” smacks heavily of white supremacy.

    We were not taught a great deal about the Native American and African-American narrative because, underneath the mythology we’ve been told, the history of America has way too many nasty incidents that makes European descendents look horrible rather than noble. So we weren’t really told how awful slavery was, or that many of the abolitionist movement not only hated the institution of slavery, but also really did not care much for the slaves themselves. We’re only told a portion of the story, and often just from the whites’ perspective.

    So, for instance, I learned about the Civil War and Reconstruction in high school all right, but very superficially. Only recently did I learn about the Redemption movement, which was essentially a tacit understanding -between North and South to let the former Confederacy roll back the political gains made by blacks (Negroes, as they were referred to then) immediately after the Civil War and the early days of Reconstruction. It was the Redemption movement that saw the erection of the monuments to Confederate “heroes” all over the South, as well as the imposition of Jim Crow laws in the Old South.

    Which leads me to the third word: Texas. Texas is a very Southern state, and even though there are “liberal” areas there, there are many Texans who are, to put it bluntly, conservative, deeply Protestant, and firm believers in white supremacy. (That’s one of the reasons why JFK called Dallas “nut country” on his ill-fated visit there on November 22, 1963.)

    As you know, Texas is the biggest of the “lower 48” states in land area and has a large population. Consequently, history textbooks published for national distribution have to be approved by local school boards in Texas. A rejected text can mean huge losses for publishers. So…if Texas doesn’t want its kids to know about La Amistad, then that incident is buried deep in the files and left there to gather dust.

  2. I’ve been trying to read the Eric Foner book on Reconstruction. I say “trying” because I am just so disgusted by what I read I can’t bear to read any more. It’s amazing how little we are actually taught about what happened in our history. The bad stuff is glossed over, sanitized, or outright ignored. Recognizing mistakes that have been made would be a good thing for many people in the population.

    • I’m reading (or trying to, with just about as much success as you with the Foner book) Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s book, Stony the Road, which focuses on white supremacy, Reconstruction, Redemption, and Jim Crow. It’s so painful to read, and the inserts with color illustrations truly show how racist white America was and still is.

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