http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/74 ("The Amistad Case in Fact and Fiction" by Eric Foner)
http://sikhspectrum.com/2003/02/the-amistad-incident/ ("The Amistad Incident" by Jeremy Brecher)
The final reading for this week is temporarily reproduced here: "From history to Publication: New Criterion Publication Date: 01-MAR-98 Author: Paquette, Robert L. COPYRIGHT 1998 Foundation for Cultural Review In 1839, fifty-three enslaved Africans aboard the Cuban schooner La Amistad, coasting eastward from COPYRIGHT 1998 Foundation for Cultural Review
In tow, La Amistad arrived in
Had Steven Spielberg and his Dream-Works lieutenants limited their claims about the movie Amistad to historical accuracy in the broad strokes only, they might have evoked a more generous response from professional historians. The movie falls far short of high cinematic art, but the producers, as creative artists, have the freedom to take history and reshape it into whatever fictional drama they see fit. Yet Spielberg and the DreamWorks crew, even before Amistad's December premiere, pronounced their film to be a kind of superior history. They distributed "Dear Educator" learning kits for classroom use in which the movie would serve, among other things, to stimulate "critical thinking about the value of history in light of the long-faded chapter [now] restored to American history in the film:' Students learn, for example, that the producers "took great care to make every detail of this historical drama authentic" and that both "historical drama and historical scholarship aim to portray the truth about the past."
Quotations from Spielberg and coproducer Debbie Allen stand out in this publication like epigraphs from Jefferson and Lincoln. After watching the movie, students are asked "to react" to Allen's gendered wisdom that "the real history has just been castrated--left out--and great historians have done it. It's beyond racism, I think. It's just one culture wanting to be dominant, and not really acknowledging the contributions of a culture that was far beyond and centuries ahead." Beyond and ahead of what, the learning kit does not say.
Allen's breezy indictment of previous studies and unnamed historians seems incredible given the scholars credited with advising the project: John Hope Franklin; Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Arthur Abraham, a historian of Sierra Leone and Mende culture; Howard Jones, author of the best historical monograph on the Amistad affair; and Clifton Johnson, founder and executive director of the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, and others. One wonders whether any of these gentlemen ventured from the sidelines to engage the DreamWorks producers in a serious conversation about the practice of history and the state of the profession, for, if the truth be known, probably no field of history in the United States during the last quarter-century has generated a more impressive body of scholarship than has the study of slavery.
Slavery citations alone, compiled from a global perspective, now fill voluminous specialized bibliographies to which the specialized journal Slavery & Abolition publishes annual supplements. The movie exaggerates the impact of the Amistad case on the ending of slavery in the
Predictably, with the stakes raised by Spielberg's alleged restoration of a lost chapter of history, historians have pounced from all directions on the historical accuracy of the film. Nor have Spielberg's liberal bona fides spared him a pummeling from the Left. Eric Foner in an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times went so far as to declare the movie "not appropriate for use in the classroom." Jesse Lemisch, former apostle among the dissenting historians of the New Left, called Amistad "conservative trash" a "screed for white paternalism and black mysticism." Spielberg's conspicuously present-minded movie, it seems, failed to rise to Lemisch's standard of usable history in that the film glorified the agency of white lawyers at the expense of the black rebels.
The producers boast of their attention to every historical detail, yet several of the movie's key characters never existed in history, and those who did have only a faint ring of authenticity. The portrayals of ten-year-old Queen Isabella II and Spanish officials look as though they were drawn from childhood memories of the "Zorro" television series. African-American historians have joined Foner in complaining about the creation of a fictional Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) when historical black abolitionists such as the Reverend James W. C. Pennington, educator and missionary, actually participated in the Amistad affair. According to the movie, President Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), realizing that the case at the lower court is turning against the interests of his Southern supporters whom he needs to win reelection, replaces Judge Andrew T. Judson, a principled old puffball, with a younger, more ambitious Democratic partisan, Judge Coglin (Jeremy Northam). Yet Coglin is an invention. In truth, Judge Judson, a Democratic party man and anti-abolitionist, relied on testimony from the famous Irish abolitionist Richard Robert Madden (not mentioned in the movie) to rule on the status of the Africans. Madden, a former British official in
In Amistad, President Van Buren stands in sharp contrast to his historical counterpart whose political acumen earned him the nickname "the Little Magician." The movie portrays him as a rather dull, manipulable careerist. He rides campaign trains, kisses babies, and preens on the stump. His middle-aged, beefy jowls and full-arm gestures take on Nixonesque dimensions. John Calhoun (Arliss Howard) strides into a White House dinner, svelte and dapper, looking remarkably fresh for a man who was actually approaching sixty at the time. He explicates Southern distinctiveness and the intertwining of the master and slave in the antebellum South. Yet he leaves his table companions--and the audience--with the grossly misleading notion that the weight of the Amistad case was such that a decision unfavorable to the South risked civil war.
Mende spirituality soars with New Age appeal in the movie; evangelical Protestantism, however, a vital transatlantic source of the antislavery movement, inhabits a dour and sanctimonious brood. During one scene, Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) lapses in front of Joadson (the embodiment of a progressive conscience) into thinking about how the antislavery crusade could reap greater rewards from the Africans' martyrdom than from their successful defense in court. Tappan then condescends to the black abolitionist after receiving his stinging rebuke. Dead Africans, however, could not have accomplished the expressed goal of the historical Tappan to return them to
Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) and John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) seem scripted to resonate with campus crowds. In the film,
But the real
Perhaps the most riveting scenes in the movie depict the slave trade. In the beginning, Cinque, caked with dirt and sweating profusely in the stinking, blackened hold of the Amistad applies bleeding fingers to extricate himself from his shackles. He and his liberated mates crack into a box of sugarcane knives, then hack their way to victory. In a fierce struggle with the captain, Cinque explodes into a primal rage that allows him to overcome the captain by running him through the chest with his own sword. The camera lingers on a triumphant Cinque, of formidable physique and stature, towering over the body. For the sake of historical accuracy, Spielberg might have dwelled on the prime target of Cinque's rage, the Amistad's mulatto cook, but his death might have thrown a disturbing nuance into a simpler conversation about race relations.
More than midway through the movie, Cinque tells more of his story, how he arrived on the Amistad in the first place. ("Whoever tells the best story wins" says
No honest scholar can deny the brutality and horror of the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves were horribly beaten and lashed during the middle passage. They suffered disease and malnutrition. Some committed suicide. Slaving captains, for various reasons, dispatched some to watery graves. Amistad's producers, however, strayed beyond the bounds of the historical evidence on the voyages of the Tecora and Amistad to confront the audience with a carefully selected medley of the horrific.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., must have neglected to mention to the producers that at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at
The notorious Tecora does not yet show up in the slave-trade database, and it may be that the word itself is a corruption by the African witnesses of another Portuguese name. By Lomboko, depicted in the movie as a masonry fortress, the Africans meant Dombokoro or Lombokoro, a stockaded compound built on mainland
For one of their most gruesome scenes, the scriptwriters may have borrowed from the atypical result of the 1781 voyage of the British slave ship Zong, when depleting water stocks caused more than a hundred sick and dying slaves to be bound and tossed overboard. Had these and similar atrocities become the norm, the Atlantic slave trade might not have lasted a generation, much less four centuries. At the time of the Amistad, the average return on investment for individual traders involved in the contraband Cuban trade had risen to almost 20 percent. Because of the risks associated with British suppression policies, however, many big traders were going bankrupt. In making economic sense of the Tecora atrocities, District Attorney Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite) was heading in the right direction.
In reality, only a small proportion of enslaved Africans entered the
At less than 10 percent, the shipboard mortality rate for slaves imported from
The movie's anachronisms mount to dizzying heights if focus is diverted to architecture, mannerisms, and language. But Amistad has less to do with historical reconstruction than future direction. Spielberg designed his movie to speak to the feelings and sensibilities of a multicultural Nineties audience. In what was intended to be a powerful scene, Cinque and Adams, black and white, begin to find a common ground of understanding in
Robert L. Paquette is a professor of American history at
The final reading for this week is temporarily reproduced here: "From history to
Publication: New Criterion
Publication Date: 01-MAR-98
Author: Paquette, Robert L.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Foundation for Cultural Review
In 1839, fifty-three enslaved Africans aboard the Cuban schooner La Amistad, coasting eastward from
COPYRIGHT 1998 Foundation for Cultural Review