329--Week 5 Questions/Comments

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1 Movie as secondary source about the past (What did it get right? What did it get wrong?)

a Right:

We've discussed in class the importance of the language barrier between two cultures and how well have movies portrayed this (or not portrayed it at well). Past movies we've watched such as Pocahontas brought up questions such as how does everyone, including the Native Americans, know English even before the British arrived in the New World. Having the Mendes speak in their native tongue provides an authentic feel to the movie, but also conveys an important factor during these trials. The fact that the Mendes neither spoke English nor Spanish made it difficult for communication between Baldwin and Cinque and in court, which the movie gets right...even adding a touch of humor to this aspect. - David F

Aagh! You totally stole my comment! I agree, Amistad was an amazing way to show how addressing language barrier can actually strengthen a movie's plot and themes. Not only do we see how Baldwin and Cinque struggle to understand one another (sometimes comedically, sometimes seriously) but we see how it helps the grow as people through understanding each other's cultures, and it also is used as evidence that the Mendi are born Africans. This leads to themes- like a people who can't speak for themselves, but overcome the impossible injustices they face as free people. I thought it was a fascinating directorial choice to not use subtitles for the Mendi until about 20-30 min. into the film. The Spanish get subtitles but audience is purposely put in the dark about what the Mendi are saying until people start to really try to talk to them. It makes it take longer for the viewer to understand and get to know the Mendi. It makes them seem foreign, and bewildering, and a bit nonsensical too, like we are looking from the point of view of the Americans who are either ignoring them as intelligent people of another culture or as the Americans who are trying to help them but can't communicate with them. --Jackie Reed

Right - still going off the same thing... I am a little more skeptical - the humor that D-Flo refers to sticks out in my mind. When Baldwin and Cinque are both saying "how do I find out where you're from" and "how can I tell you where I'm from" I am just a little skeptical. I like to think that through language barriers we all can think similarly and problem solve though. Another instance is when Cinque is asking all the questions via the translator to JQA. I thought it was interesting to note that JQA's argument did end up being in essence Cinque's words. To summarize - I felt that Amistad did a good job of portraying the language barrier, but did have a few inconsistencies in this area (which were most likely purposeful for entertainment value). -Elle Weaver


At the point where Holabird is questioning Cinque about slavery within Africa, there is trouble in translation because 'slave' can only be translated as 'worker.' We see an example of this when Olaudah Equiano writes of slavery in Africa as an entirely different concept--workers or servants, and he was well-treated and included--than what started happening once he got to the coast. However, with Holabird's argument that whether it's slavery or indentured servitude, the concept is the same, the film gives little indication to the viewer that the concept truly is different. -Whitney H.

It's good to have the British captain confirm to Holabird in testimony that Cinque's account of the captives' treatment was a common occurrence, so the viewer understands that as well. -Whitney H.

I thought that regarding the initial court proceedings, the movie portrayed the varied interests well. That there were many groups: the abolitionists, the state, Ruis and Mendez, and the two guys from LI helped show how this trial was at times confusing for everyone involved. Also I believe the movie did well to show how the case became a symbol greater than the fate of the Amistad slaves. The abolitionists wanted them to be the first major blow against slavery while MVB wanted the case to fall in his favor to appease southern pressure. -Bryan Mull

I think the movie portrayed the middle passage with ample brutality and accuracy. Since I cannot believe that conditions would have been any better, were they any worse? As far as middle passage portrayals go, where does this one rank? Have there been many other portrayals? In other words, was this the fist exposure the American public had to the reality of "The Middle Passage"? - Jason Ward

As with many others, I felt the movie portrayed the language barrier fairly well. I like the humor that comes out in the movie here and there. I also felt that the directors did well with portraying the conditions of captured Africans and slaves on the ships as well. --Ashley Wilkins

One other event the movie got right was the part where Baldwin is shouting out numbers in Mende to see if anyone would understand him. Fortunately, someone understood him! ~Katherine Stinson~

The part I felt that was portrayed best historically was the slave ship scenes. They do a very good job at showing the terrible conditions shown towards slaves similar to the account given from the readings. The ships clearly showed the crowded conditions punishments and the situations where the sick are tossed overboard. The only problem I had with these parts is that there was a significant amount of women and children on board the ships. This does not seem likely because the preferred slaves of Europeans would be males. Women and children slaves aboard ships would also be the first ones likely to be thrown overboard.- Jonathan Bell

It's clear that Spielberg and the other filmmakers did substantial research before making this film. From the depiction of the men counting to ten in Mende in the New York harbor to the problems caused by the language barrier, they did a good job of presenting this as an "authentic" historical film. The flashback scenes on the Tocura are particularly harrowing and really drive the point home. I think we can all agree that slavery is one of, if not THE, darkest chapters in our nation's history. The horrors depicted in Spielberg's film should provide an interesting contrast to the slavery depicted in next week's film, Gone With the Wind. - Sarah Richardson

Agreeing with everyone else, I think the film director did a good job with the language barriers. They made it seem very real and how long it took them to understand the Mendes by finding a translator in the harbor who spoke Mendes. This all seemed very accurate to our notes from Tuesday’s class. –Ashley Scutari

I think the movie does a decent job of showing the continuous legal struggle the Mendes and Baldwin go through, as they are forced to bring their case three times to three different judges. For the first time while watching a movie, I really got the sense of what an emotional roller coaster it must have been for them, or for anyone, forced to go through the court system. Each time the Mendes went to court, they won their freedom, each time thinking this time I will get to go home, but with each appeal, they are cast back into imprisonment,their fate once again undetermined. The movie shows just how long the Mendes are forced to wait in chains. ~Juliann Boyles

b Inaccurate/issues:

One thing I noticed about Dr. M's lecture was the overwhelming amount of historical figures involved with the trial surrounding the Amistad slaves. So a question I asked myself before watching the movie was which historical characters would the movie focus on. The most obvious is Joseph Cinque (but I probably would not have known this if I haven't heard of this film before), but I think you could argue that every other name Dr. M mentioned in class deserved much focus in order to understand the history of the Amistad trial. Roger Baldwin and JQA are the other two figures the movie gives more screen time to, but I feel like much more important figures deserve greater insight and character development. For example, President Van Buren would have had much to say about the trial since he was up for re-election during this time period. Also, I initially thought Morgan Freeman's character was a reflection of James Pennington, but after reading "Reel History," I discovered that Theodore was fictitious and that the movie was actually criticized for not including those prominent blacks involved with the abolition movement (71). Additionally, other important historical figures such as Queen Isabella of Spain (at least I think she was a Queen in the movie) and the Grimke sisters needed more emphasis to understand this historical event. - David F.

David sort of touches on my question about who WAS Morgan Freeman's character? I don't quite understand why the entire movie would build itself upon actual people and then when it comes to the black abolitionist, they create a new character. We knew that there was a Reverend Pennington, so why not actually base Freeman's character on him? --Kelly Wuyscik

I have a few things to say about the characters. Matthew McConaughey's character of Roger Baldwin was full humor, but I thought that depiction was inaccurate. Dr. M said the real Baldwin was in his 40's, whereas in the movie, he was depicted as a young, fresh, and inexperienced lawyer. It can be argued that he was this movie's eye candy, as Jackie might say. His important role in the trials was right, but it was he who talked to John Quincy Adams in the movie to get involved in the trials, not Lewis Tappan, as it was in reality. As for Queen Isabella, was she really eleven or was she younger? -Lauren

Actually I would say the eye candy of this movie was either Cinque, who was constantly shirtless, or Covey, who was just so damn pretty- but my silliness aside, I thought this was one of Matthew McConaughey's finer roles. And between his costume (shabby dress and sideburns) and his convincing performance as a compelling lawyer (though inexperienced in the courtroom) I think his usual stereotype as a leading man hottie is irrelevant here as is his age, since he still came across as serious as and as strong as Morgan Freeman or Anthony Hopkins. But, I was also peeved by the Morgan Freeman character fabrication issue. "Of course it's him!" I said to myself as soon as I heard the voice. If there is going to be a wise, cunning, and quietly righteous black man in a period film, it is going to be played by Freeman! But when you've got such a fail-safe stock character like that, why bother trying portray the connections to the real freed black abolitionist, James Pennington? And how about those female speaking roles... or should I say role! I can understand when a movie is made about a time when women weren't put in the history books, but there WERE the Grimke sisters, who were certainly more prominent in the publicity around the case than a man who never existed (Freeman)! The only individual female character we see is the self-centered, pre-teen Queen Isabela II. Way to make women look good Hollywood! But hey, at least they didn't invent or fabricate a love story for once!--Jackie Reed

The scene where Morgan Freeman and Louis Tappan are in the buggy and Tappan mentions that his cause for abolition might be better suited if the Mendes were killed, for purposes of Martyrdom, I think really contributed to an understanding of the complexities of the abolitionist movement. Several abolitionists got involved in the Amistad case, hoping it would help perpetuate their cause for the emancipation of slaves. When the trial turns out later to just be one based on technicalities rather than the moral issue of slavery, I am sure the abolitionists, like Tappan in the movie, were greatly disappointed. Freeman's comment on how the only thing some abolitionists hate more than slavery are slaves themselves was really powerful. That attitude was true during this time, where even those who opposed slavery suffered from racism. ~Juliann Boyles

How involved was Queen Isabella? I remember learning that the Spanish Ambassador to the US got his panties in a twist over this whole issue, but I don't recall hearing how involved and aware Isabella was in the incident. It makes sense for her to be aware of the event and to care about it, but how much of an active part did she play? Also, how much of a complete nutbag was John Quincey Adams? The movie, to me, made him seem like he was a bit, well, off mentally. Was it just old age? --Kelly Wuyscik

The Lewis Tappan Document describes the jail arrangements of the Amistad captives. In this source Cinque is jailed with other criminals separate from his people. He is also not allowed to be removed from said cell because he was not trusted. This is VERY different in the film, in which Cinque leaves the cell on many occasions and is even unchained in the presence of John Quincy Adams in his study. -Elle Weaver

Question - How many women and children were aboard the Amistad and made it out alive? It struck me as odd that there would be young and female survivors of this entire ordeal - given Cinque's account of killing off/starving/drowning the weak and less profitable slaves on the original journey, tacked onto the fact that the majority of slaves in the trade were men in the first place. - Elle Weaver

Answer: I thought there were a few women and children survivors that made it onto the Amistad. As for why they would be there in the first place, I imagine, is because (with a mix of men and women) slaveowners would hope that they would procreate and then their children would become the property of the slave-owners who bought them (free slaves basically).--Jackie Reed

So we know that they really appealed to the District Court, and didn't replace the judge, and that they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, too. But what's the deal with the trial? It looks like Adams gives a little, powerful speech based on Cinque's words...nothing close to an 8.5-hour oratory. Are we supposed to assume that the arguments made in lesser courts are also made before the Supreme Court before what we see, or that Adams's little bit was all it took for the court to hear the case and rule on it? -Whitney H.

Wait. Whitney. Did you really want the movie to go on for another 8.5 hrs? Baldwin gave a speech and testimony (repeating mostly what he had already argued in lower courts) over a period of two days, but ALL of that happened off camera. I think we should cut the filmmakers some slack on summary of Adams' real speech. --Jackie

I agree, the movie was long enough as it was. I would have never wanted it to go on longer so that it could include a longer speech made by Adams. You get the basic understanding of what was happening without going into more detail in the court arguments. -- Kellye Sorber

A number of people have already made comments on this but I, too, have something to say about Matthew McConaughey's Baldwin. As we learned in class yesterday, Baldwin was a Yale educated lawyer known for defending the unfortunate. If his name was already well known in society then he had to have been around for a few years. As we learn every week, it is up to the discretion of the film makers as to how a certain character should look/talk/act etc. but I just found this typical, romanticized Hollywood to have an up and coming actor play an up and coming lawyer. -- Mallory C.

Was it accurate to have Evangelicals wearing crosses? I was under the impression that wearing a cross was much more prevalent in Catholicism and that it was more common for Evangelicals to carry around Bibles. -- Mallory C.

If I remember, Dr. M said that there were only 4 crew and the 2 guys who from Cuba or whatever. There looked to be a lot more than that at the beginning of the movie. I guess most Americans would find 4 crewman as unbelievable or something like that... --Ashley Wilkins

How did all of a sudden Cinque seem to know so much about American law? I know that his questions were being translated but still, I would never expect that he would have any understanding of the concepts behind why certain things were being done. -- Kellye Sorber

I felt that they gave the cargo hold waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much height and space, because from lecture on Tuesday it was like the area was usually barely tall enough for the Africans to sit up, much less fully stand with room still between their heads and the ceiling. --Ashley Wilkins

I too wondered about whether the Middle Passage scenes should have been even harsher, though they were effective in showing the inhumanity of the situation. I did wonder whether a woman that was super pregnant would be selected to make the journey knowing full well the conditions were less than optimal for childbirth? Also, I guess this is nitpicking but I believe that only 5 of the 9 Justices were slave owners but in the film it was reported that 7 held slaves. Lastly, I have always read that JQA was one of, if not the smartest of the presidents, so was it accurate to have him be such a bumbling eccentric?-Bryan Mull

I thought Morgan Freeman’s character might be a fabrication at first because he didn’t seems to fit with the Pennington discussed in class. It turns out he was indeed made up for the movie. What was the purpose of Joadson at all? And, of course, I was expecting a Big Damn Heroes moment from John Quincy Adams considering how much they were building it up. And that’s what we get. Now, the speech had pretty much nothing to do with the trial, and it was all about anti-slavery which would have turned off the Southern judges, and, hey, it only felt like it was hours long instead of being the actual eight hours of JQA’s real speech, but it was awesome. Still, I would have loved to see the judges dismiss everything he said like they did in real life, but then again, the movie isn’t a comedy. And it would have been funny to see, since he was set up as the final hope since the start of the movie. --Taylor Brann

Would they really have had to work that hard to convince JQA to take the case becuase in the movie it seemed like JQA was really not interested and it took asking by several people before he agreed to come hear Cinque's story. It was only after he had talked to Cinque that he agreed to take the case.- Christine W.

I was surprised to see how quickly Cinque picked up on American law when he was questioning JQA via the translator. What is the likelihood that thru a translator he would have been able to understand American law that quickly and understand it enough to be able to question it. - Christine W.

One thing particularly bothered me about this movie is the constant references of the Civil War. It is unlikely at the time that many people would really feel that a Civil war was a serious possibility. It seems to be more a tool of foreshadowing and feels historically out of place. The figures in this movie other than Africans and African Americans all seem to have a bit of silliness or weirdness about them. - Jonathan Bell

What happened to the women and children from La Amistad that we see at the beginning of the film? They just disappear. - Sarah Richardson

I could be wrong about this, but I believe the linguist in the film would have actually been called a philologist. Nitpicky, I know. – Wesley Weeks

The film portrayed the British in an exceedingly good light. While they had of course outlawed slavery at this point, racism was not absent from there culture, nor is it now. The film portrays them as completely anti racism simply because of their ban on slavery. – Wesley Weeks

Usually I am not good at catching bloopers but I am pretty sure there was a modern day US flag on the Tecora, which was a Portuguese ship, just a minor detail. --Shauser 20:33, 24 September 2008 (MDT)

A question I had was did they really appoint a new and younger judge because they didn’t like the results from the elder judge? I could not remember if we spoke about this in class. Also was Queen Isabella II really perceived as a young childish queen, who was not mature enough to take on her role as queen? –Ashley Scutari

While the movie seemed accurate in its small details, the general theme of Civil War consequences does seem a little overblown, as discussed by others. I'm sure the tension of the issue was present throughout the case, but could not have been as close to the focus as Amistad makes it. I wonder if Spielberg was at least in part latching on to the Civil War as something a broader audience would understand or at least recognize. Dwelling on the coming war helps the movie bridge a gap between the political drama movie genre into the Civil War genre, complete with ten second token battle scene. - JT Newcomb

It seemed as though the level of understanding that Cinque had with Baldwin was constantly changing throughout the movie. He seemed to have more understanding at different points earlier on than he did at segments later in the movie. Also, when would the slaves have learned to use and understand English during their incarceration? Would Cinque have learned what the English word for freedom was, and if so, understood it? -Cash Nelson

Jackie and Kellye- I don't want the movie to be any longer, either. What I meant is that there are ways to indicate, in a few seconds, that hours have gone by, and I noticed nothing in the movie to indicate this passage of time. Had I not already known his speech lasted hours, I would not have gotten that impression. -Whitney H.

One more thing I'd like to bring up about the portrayal of the voyage on the Tecora-- While we agree the treatment was fairly accurate, one thing stands out to me as not. When the crew brought out food to the captives, though not giving any to the sick ones, they were all holding out their hands, grasping for, begging for food. Although it helps imply that they have been given inadequate food thus far, this doesn't match the idea that many captives wanted to starve themselves and die and had to be force-fed. -Whitney H.

2 Film's relationship to current scholarship or to primary sources from the time

The portrayal of Cinque fit the description of him by Lewis Tappan. Tappan described Cinque as having "a good deal of gracefulness and native diginity (Tappan, p. 351)." In the movie, Djimon Hounsou who played Cinque was able to get that description across great. His presence was so strong and that of a leader. He looked like he was born to the position that he achieved as his character. He was dignified as he walked about and testified in the courts, even in shackles. -Lauren

Hounsou's Cinque has grace and dignity sometimes, particularly in court, with Adams, and telling his lion story, but a good deal of the time he is shouting with eyes wide and nostrils flared-whether on the Amistad or riled up in jail. In combination with certain postures and grunts at various points, that's more like raw African savage than the graceful and dignified native we see later. However, when Baldwin is trying to tell him that the other Mende captives look up to him, he is very modest, saying he cannot speak for them and telling his lion story. It is made clear that he hasn't always been their leader, when he's first arguing with Fala after the mutiny, who he continues to have tension with in the jail. However, at one point in the trial, Cinque notices all the fidgeting in the court and looks like he's about to lose it, but then stands up and starts saying "Give us, us free!" He is really made noble here, because not only is he holding out his manacled hands in front of him, but the sunlight is streaming through the window onto the Mendi just so, accompanied by angelic singing. -Whitney H.

There seems to be a lack of consistency when it comes to the description of the Mendi/ Mandingos in Tappan’s account and their representation in the film. Tappan describes Cinquez as “…about 5 feet 8 inches high, of fine proportions, with a noble air. Indeed, the whole company, although thin in flesh, and generally of slight forms, and limbs…The Mandingoes are described in books as being a very gentle race, cheerful in their dispositions, inquisitive, credulous, simple hearted and much given to trading propensities” (Tappan 350). In the movie none of the Mendi were 5’8, none of them were cheerful in disposition, and none of them had slight builds (true to one aspect of this description, Cinquez was inquisitive towards John Quincy Adams). So, who are we to believe? Tappan, who could have very well been sugar coating facts for sympathy in the case? Or Spielberg who could have used stereotypically strong and angry slave stock characters for dramatic appeal? – Jason Ward

There are a few things from Tappan's account that the movie did not exactly follow. For one, rather than being in "comfortable" rooms, they seemed to basically live in a pen. They are not quiet or orderly for the most part, but always singing or speaking or yelling. They are also portayed very animal-like in the movie, at least in the beginning and in their pen. However, I think the movie did do a good job of not lumping all black people, or slaves, into being of one nationality or homeland, which Tappan makes note of in his letter. --Amanda Russell

3 Movie as primary source about makers/time/setting/genre

Maritime History was a popular subject for films of 1997... Titanic anyone. --Jackie Reed

Going along Jackie's comment, it seems like Steven Spielberg was trying to do his own maritime history film in order to outdo James Cameron's Titanic and have a blockbuster hit. Spielberg has actors like Matthew McConaughey who was then a new face back in 1997. What do people think? -Lauren

So we started the 90s with Native American films and moved on to Maritime films... Don't forget that Waterworld was made in 1995. :-p I liked it, but I await the 'cringes' --Ashley Wilkins

Waterworld was a good movie the way Kevin Costner is a celebrity. -Cash Nelson

How much of The Civil War talk in the film was accurate? This event, and subsequent trials took place 20 years before the outbreak of The Civil War. Did the nation really feel like it was on the brink of civil war for this long? Or is this just another case of hindsight as we saw with the treatment of the Revolutionary War in Last of the Mohicans? It is my opinion that the characters in the movie referenced an inevitable civil war exorbitantly. -Jason Ward

-It seems that the producers may have injected the illusion of Civil War so early in the time reference in order to add suspense as well as make the viewer aware of times and tensions based on the foundational question of slavery which is brought up a bit in the movie. However, historically the idea of Civil War probably emerged at an apex upon the eventual annexation of Texas taking place a few years after the Amistad case, resulting in the question of which states would be slave states upon the expansion of the mainifest destined America. James D.

The abolitionist movement is underrepresented in this movie and several people have noted that people have been placed in improper roles or have been exaggerated. This movie does succeed in showing many of the hardships faced by African's in slave ships and presents a strong anti slavery message. This message, however is presented in a way that associates more with the time it was made rather than the past. - Jonathan Bell

4 Public reaction/impact

WHY ISN'T THIS MOVIE MORE POPULAR/WELL-KNOWN? In a way, it kind of amazes me that this movie is not more well known. In my opinion, it is a good, solid movie. As a result, it makes me question why more people don't know if its existence. It has such a star-studded cast that you would think that over half of us in class would have known about it. This leads me to the question of subject matter -- do we think that because of the basic storyline, most people were turned off from the movie? Or was it just not publicized well enough? It's a shame because I think it's a movie that people would enjoy (and I didn't even mind the gore so much! Mostly because it was dark when they had the gross scenes.) --Kelly Wuyscik

As was mentioned in class this morning, I wonder why the story of Amistad and the film are not more well known. With the extraordinary cast, director, and overall impact of the film, it's strange that it did not receive more recognition. Also, given that politicians were looking at this case as a monumental turning point to begin the civil war, how is it not more integral in our nation's history? Something that stuck with me was a line of JQA, something along the lines of - "I want the next generation to know the name Cinque as well as Patrick Henry." Why don't we? -Elle Weaver

This movie does a GREAT job of articulating the abolitionist viewpoint, and telling a compelling story of slaves throwing off the shackles of their oppressors. For those reasons this movie makes a powerful and effective emotional impact. However, I feel that an accurate movie, made about a slave story from the south, would better challenge our understanding of that time in our history. I think the overall impact of this movie was diminished because it did not directly challenge American slavery on the ultimate battleground- the plantation. The story of the Amistad slaves was a court case largely decided by the letter of the law, and it set a narrow and particular precedent. A more effective movie would not only present the abolitionist cause, it would tell a story that served as an immediate catalyst for emancipation.- Jason Ward

As for why it was not well known, the subject matter was and still is a dangerous topic to cover in the public sphere. With talk of slavery comes the controversial mention of reparations, and the guilt that came/comes with addressing American involvement in slave trade is something that many people are not prepared to deal with. Also, let's consider what the 2nd-4th most grossing movies were of 1997: Tomorrow Never Dies, Jurassic Park 2 and Liar/Liar. If Titanic hadn't had the beefcake factor, it would not have been top-billed, because no one wants to sit through 3.5 hours of movie when they know how it's going to end. Crisp, short, blockbuster movies sell. Epic reminders of dark periods in American history often don't. -Cash Nelson

Excellent points Elle! I am recommending this 10 year old movie to everyone I know cuz I only just found out how great it is! I think the history books gloss over the Amistad case in high schools because there wasn't just one action or event that sparked the Civil War. So many little things (though usually monument, like this, when looked at individually) lead to the impossible tension that caused the war to be arguably inevitable. But, I think what the movie is trying to show, is that nobody wanted that inevitable clash of the south and north to be on their head (as Calhoun says to van Buren in the film). As for the Patrick Henry thing, I think its hilarious that while we remember a man who famously spoke words that were not his own, we forget the man who had to have his own important words spoken by a translator (if that makes any sense)- what I mean to say is, that I believe the Cinque's sentiments on rights to freedom, heard second-hand, are better worth remembering than Patrick Henry's plagiarized speech, but only Antebellum African Americans they ever bother to teach are Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tudman --Jackie Reed

I think the reason this particular story never made it into the popular folklore of our national history until 1997 (and it can be argued that it still has not) is because the court decision did not indict or attempt to dismantle the American institution of slavery. The story of the Amistad slaves was a custodial issue. The case boiled down to the fact that these Mende were illegally entered into the slave trade, and by happenstance ended up in America. No one in America had legitimate claim to them, so the Mende were allowed to be free. These Mende never participated in slave labor, and for that reason it could be said that the decision to keep these Africans out of slavery would not necessarily serve as a precedent for those African- Americans already enslaved. These slaves got justice, but due to the narrowly defined court decision the judgment did not translate into justice for other slaves. N.B. That is not to say the the arguments made in the various trials did not lend support to the abolitionist cause. - Jason Ward

Touching on Jackie's point, to be honest I never learned about the Amistad case until class on Tuesday. I don't recall my history books ever mentioning it which is a pity because it is a truly remarkable event in history and it should be taught to history classes. Also, I absolutely loved Yamba. I thought his character was amazing. Whether he was based off of a real figure or not, I don't really care. He was simply wonderful. --Kelly Wuyscik

Though we touched on this movie in high school (mostly to show the horrors of the Middle Passage) I agree with Jason as to why this movie has in some ways failed to capture the public's imagination. As inspiring as JQA's final speech was (loved the portrait of JA slightly blurred over his shoulder), as in real life this wasn't an anti-slavery ruling. This was a matter of property. Perhaps this is why when asked most people probably wouldn't come up with this film before other examples of Spielberg historic films. I know I would have referenced Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, and Munich before Amistad, which in some ways is a shame. Ultimately I feel that this movie is most valuable in its depiction of the Middle Passage which struck me as the most realistic that filmmakers could likely get away with.-Bryan Mull

Another thing to consider is this movie is about slavery and tries to accuratly represent what happened to slaves atleast on the passage over. How many people are going to be willing to see a movie about a subject in our nations's history that we don't like to talk about to begin with especially if it portrays us in a bad light and is graphic. - Christine W.

IMPACT OF FILM I don’t get choked up at movies very often, but the scenes on the Tecora… not only did I get a little choked up, I felt a little sick to my stomach. The crowded quarters, the lack of food, the beatings, the suicides, the sexual assaults, the complete disregard for life. I’d say it was pretty accurate. And even when it wasn’t (for instance, why would slave traders expect anyone to buy a baby?), I’m not sure if it necessarily matters that much. It was effective and intense. I think it needs to be as terrible and gruesome as possible because we’re supposed to find it repulsive. Slavery is repulsive. I don't believe we can really comprehend that unless we've seen it ourselves, and films can bring us a little closer to understanding. --Taylor Brann

I agree with Kelly that I'm surprised this movie is not very well known. It is very well shot, and the graphic parts do us a real service (even if they are very hard to watch, which they were). I don't know if it was 100% accurate in its portrayal of the slave ships, but even if they made that part up, I think they did it based on what we do know and that it works well. --Amanda Russell

As has been said above me, the slave ship scenes were, although accurate, pretty stomach-turning as well. I had to turn away during a couple scenes, and will admit to crying like a child when the slaves were dragged off the ship and drowned in order to eliminate any possibility of food shortages. --Cash Nelson

One thing that surprised me about the movie was the scene where Cinque sits down with his friend who had been given the Bible. Speilberg shows the concept of religion in a very positive light, as they discuss the struggles of Jesus in Mendes, relating those struggles to their own. A film in the 1990s that addresses religion in such a positive way was definitely not very common, with most religious followers portrayed often as out of touch. Instead, in Amistad, Speilberg portrays the Bible as a source for understanding, a way for the Mendes to relate to this new foreign culture. Since several of the Mendes do convert to Christianity, I think this was a very important and powerful scene. ~Juliann Boyles

5 Other movies/questions of style/framing/storyline

I take issue with the storyline that centers around the replacement of the judge. This did not happen, the case was appealed to another court. The film makes it look like Van Buren intervened in the proceedings and placed a judge on the bench that would rule against the Mende. The new judge is described as young, Catholic, and without anything to prove- a pawn of the Van Buren/ Calhoun contingency. Why would the film makers fabricate this part of the storyline? If the film makers wanted to demonize the governmental leaders of the time for their racist attitudes and policies, couldn’t they have just used the actual words of the men who held those beliefs? I’m sure we would find them offensive enough.- Jason Ward

-Great movie, accurate depictions, very detailed. At first, after watching the slaves escape their terrible situation through revolt, the movie seemed like it would be strictly about slavery. It seems to be more about the Americans realization of human rights and fundamental treatment of humankind. In addition, it almost seems that the judges base their decision out of sympathy for the Mende, or with a bias against slavery, when after all they construe their decision due to the infringement of international treaty. Was the Amistad decision really a breakthrough for abolitionists? How did the Supreme Court justices view slavery at the point of the Amistad trial? (many owned slaves, many partook in the Dred Scott decision about 15 years later) How would the case have turned out if it were originally tried in another state? --James D.

6 Overall

I read in an article that there was a historian on set, overseeing the filming of Amistad; showing that it was Spielberg's intention to have the majority of the facts historically accurate. This is a great film and regardless of the historical inaccuracies in Amistad, in my opinion, Spielberg and the other film makers were courageous in creating a film that broke the mold. Slavery as told by the perspective of the victims is rarely if ever portrayed on the big screen. It does a good job of showing the American public that the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln were amongst a number of key events on the road to the emancipation of slaves. -- Mallory C.


Why were there not more captions? It seemed like most of the time what was being said by the Mende was not important enough to caption. I felt like if they were going to have them talk it would have been better to caption it all, that way maybe they coculd show some insight to what they were thinking. -- Kellye Sorber

Overall, Amistad is my favorite of the movies we’ve watched so far, and it's probably the strongest in its impact on the viewer. With Steven Spielberg, John Williams, and talented actors, it better be good. Though Morgan Freeman always seems to play the same character (whatever works), I could barely recognize Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey. I also want to say it’s the most historically accurate film that we’ve watched so far, but I’m not sure if I’m confident enough to say that. It’s not without its problems. I think one of the biggest issues is that the Amistad case was made out to be some kind of turning point in antislavery, but the case was more about illegal slavery than slavery itself. Also, the characters kept mentioning a civil war between the North and South, as though everyone knew it was definitely going to happen. The movie even seemed to make it look like the Amistad case was one of the causes! --Taylor Brann

Overall I thought the movie was really well done. It seems to be the most historically accurate movie we have watched which may have somethng to do with why it is not very well known. I think another thing to consider is how well did this movie do when it came out, did it come out the same time as some other bigger movie? - Christine W.


I may have heard J.Q. Adams wrong but it sounded like he suggested tearing up the word of Jefferson in the court oom. I am pretty sure that would not go over very well with anyone in the court.-- Matt DeMarr

Another thing that stood out to me was why would any of the prisoners be let out of their cells? espesiecly a possible slave in a property dispute.

Amistad is ultimately about good and evil. We see the atrocities of the Middle Passage and of the illegal slave trade, but we also witness incredible goodness in the actions of those defending the Mende. Most of the film's characters are rather flat: either entirely good or entirely bad. It's an effective strategy. We don't have to worry about the moral complexity of the heroes of the film if they are portrayed as virtually without vice. - Sarah Richardson

I believe this film is the most historically accurate of all the ones we have watched so far. The one major flaw, that doesn't really show up to the end, the idea that the Amistad case was an abolitionist cause (even though abolitionist did fight for it). As we know it had more to do with illegal international slave trading. Of course the film would not be as feel good if it focused more on the latter point instead of the former point and as we know the 90s loves this kind of feel good ending.--Shauser 21:46, 24 September 2008 (MDT)