Amistad, A Review

Being in New Haven and researching local abolitionists and antislavery organizations recently inspired me to rewatch the Steven Spielberg-directed film Amistad (Prod. by Debbie Allen, Steven Spielberg, and Colin Wilson. DreamWorks SKG in association with HBO Pictures, 1997. 2hr. 35 min.). The film narrates the historical case of the slave ship Amistad in 1839 starting with the enslaved human cargo revolting and taking control of the ship. It follows the self-freed people as the ship eventually is captured by a U.S. ship and taken to New Haven, Connecticut, where a series of court cases decide the status of the Amistad’s former cargo.

The movie relates the initial escape and battle for control of the Amistad predominantly from the perspective of the self-freed person Cinque (played by Djimon Hounsou). Cinque wears his fingers raw pulling a nail from ship that he then uses to unlock his manacles and free his fellow captives. Once Cinque and the other Africans gain their freedom they attack the sailors, leaving only a few alive. These few survivors are then instructed via gestures and an untranslated language (later revealed to be Mende) to steer the ship to Africa. This sequence illustrates the terrible conditions of a slave ship, the difficulty of escape, and the desire of the self-freed people to return home. However, it also makes a curious artistic choice startingly clear: The Spanish language of the sailors is translated into English for the U.S. audience via subtitles, while the language(s) of the self-freed African captives is not translated in any form. The writer (David Franzoni) and director (Spielberg) may have made this choice to not translate the self-freed people’s speech in order to demonstrate the communication gulf and portray the struggles of the Amistad Africans as universally understandable even without language, but by translating one language (Spanish) for the audience while not translating the African one reinforces the Amistad Africans’ status as outsiders.

As the film progresses and the Amistad Africans arrive in and then are subjected to multiple trials in the United States, their speech is eventually subtitled to help give the audience a better sense of their thoughts and experiences. And the film’s conclusion stresses the importance of language to connect people when Cinque roughly say “Thank you” in English to the lawyer representing the self-freed people, Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), who in turn responds haltingly in Mende. Their brief exchange of language illustrates the relationship and understanding they’ve built throughout the film. But if sharing language between characters illustrates a bond, then not sharing language with the audience all the more clearly illustrates distance.

Ultimately, this problem of not translating Mende in the opening scenes is reflected by the film’s larger stress on the Amistad Africans “white saviors.” Baldwin, former U.S. President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), and other white abolitionists successfully maneuver the case through the U.S. legal system and ultimately “save” the self-freed people from being re-enslaved. The film certainly portrays the Amistad Africans as initiating the struggle, but the narrative is predominantly a legal and political one involving white people and white institutions.

Despite the “white savior” issues of Amistad, however, the film introduced this historical moment to a U.S. audience that had, almost to a person, never heard of it. And while the final sharing of language between Baldwin and Cinque suggested a new understanding between enslaved people and free whites that was not widely felt, the film also portrayed the many proslavery forces at work in the United States at the time, reminding the audience that the country often failed to act as a liberator. Ultimately, Amistad is a slightly outdated representation of a moment of enslaved people’s self-liberation but is still a useful introduction to a historical moment, and I think showing it in a high school or university classroom could lead to a robust discussion of slavery, abolition, and their memory in the United States.