Amistad Review


Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" is centered on the legal status of
Africans caught and brought to America on a Spanish slave ship. The
Africans rise up and begin a mutiny against their captors on the high
seas and are brought to trial in a New England court. The court must
decide if the Africans are actually born as slaves or if they were
illegally brought from Africa. If the Africans were born as slaves
then they would be guilty of murder, but if their being brought here
from Africa is illegal, they had the right to defend themselves. This
was not such a simple issue since the slave trade had been banned by
treaties at the time of the Amistad incident in 1839. The movie starts
on board the Amistad. On the ship the leader of the Africans, Cinque,
frees himself from his chains and frees the rest of his tribe. They
slaves are being taken from a Havana slave market to another
destination in Cuba. The two men who bought them are spared, and
promise to take the slaves back to Africa. Instead, the Amistad is
guided into US waters, and the Africans end up being tried in a New
England court. Luckily, it is a Northern court. If the slaves had
ended up in the South they would have no chance of getting off. The
slaves are first defended by Roger Baldwin a well-off real estate
lawyer who bases the case on property law. Only slowly does Baldwin
come to see his clients, the slaves, as human beings. Also, two Boston
abolitionists, an immigrant called Tappan, and a former slave named
Joadson are in the defense. Together these men work to try to free the
53 slaves aboard the Amistad. After the slaves are tried and freed at
the New England district court, they must go to the Supreme Court. In
the Supreme Court John Quincy Adams, former president, who is fighting
for the freedom of all men, defends them. He gives an 11 minute speech
and persuades the Supreme Court to free the slaves as individuals
because all men are free under the Declaration of Independence. The
slaves are freed once and again and choose to return to their
homeland. However, Cinque discovers that his village has been
destroyed and the rest of his family has already been sold into
slavery. This is where Cinque emerges as a powerful character. He was
once a free farmer living in peace with his now lost wife and family.
His wife and his village are shown, which helps to understand how
cruelly he and the others were all ripped from their lives and
ambitions. Cinque spoke no English at the beginning of the movie, but
he learns some while he is in prison. A translator is found who helps
him express his consternation at the legal system that may free him but
will not correct or even address the real crime against him. Cinque
learns enough of America to see it's faults. Also, in this movie is
President Martin Van Buren, who is portrayed as a feeble man of
compromise who wants only to keep the South off his back.


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