Amistad, a film by Steven Spielberg, is a 1997 American historical drama film. This film is based on a true story of the events in 1839 aboard the slave ship La Amistad, during which Mende tribesman abducted for slave trade managed to gain control of their captors’ ship off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. The case was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme court in 1841. Leading up to the production of this film, Americans were converting over to a new collective country. Before Americans were looking outwards for what seemed like decades, but then they eventually were able to examine their own internal affairs by looking inwards, and, specifically, the state of their race relations situations. In this film Spielberg balanced historical accuracy with contemporary interests.
There were events in the U.S. and around the world that were taking place corresponding to the time of this films production. The Americans did have to look inward very hard. Two race-related court cases overshadowed the news reports in the early nineties. The first case was related to the 1991 beating of a black citizen, by white officers in Los Angeles. This case was accompanied by race riots after a white jury found the officers innocent. The second case, the O.J. Simpson trial, hit the news reports full force on October 2,1995. In this case a black jury found a black man not guilty of killing his white wife. As this case arrived to a close, approximately two-thirds of white Americans thought he was guilty, and two-thirds of the black Americans thought he was being framed. With the news reports swarming with race-related court cases approaching Americans daily, the stage was set for a film about black rights on a trial. With this in mind now we can think of the reason Spielberg had for making this film, such as, a mix between fact and fiction, eliminations, or factual errors.
Lewis Tappan, an abolitionist in the film has a limited role. His fictional associate in the film, Theodore Joadson, is a composite character representing three real historical abolitionists. Two out of the three were white members of the Amistad Committee, and the third was a black minister, who worked with Tappan on fundraising for the return of the Africans. In my opinion, Spielberg may have created Joadson to bring together present day American blacks and whites.
This film, amplifies the story of a real and important minute in American and African chronicle. While it does a renowned job of bringing this part of antiquity to the general populace, it is distributed with alterations, deletions, and even misconception that make it an undependable source for “real” historical understanding. In the making of this film deciding between what to keep and what throw out dealing with historical facts and contemporary interests, the contemporary came out on top and the historical facts ended up being unused footage not included in the actual film.
Amistad, DVD, directed by Steven Spielberg (Universal City, CA: Dreamworks Pictures, 1997).