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The misuse of historical facts in amistad a movie by steven spielberg

Occasional subtitles, graphic violence. Reviewed by Sally Hadden shadden mailer. The first part of this review covers the film's content and offers some evaluation of its utility for the classroom and its portrayal of legal events in the Amistad case. The second part is about how the film AMISTAD has been marketed as history, and it addresses the use and abuse of historical material for filmmaking purposes.

The first ten minutes are designed to evoke stark terror, as the freed slaves attack their Spanish captors, killing all but two of the ship's sailors, who they keep alive in order to sail back to Africa. The sailors' trick of sailing east by day and northwest by night eventually brings the AMISTAD to the coast of New York; there it is boarded by American sailors and taken to Connecticut, where Cinque and his band are jailed.

Lewis Tappan and the misuse of historical facts in amistad a movie by steven spielberg fictional character, Theodore Joadson an African-American abolitionist join forces to promote the cause of the AMISTAD captives; they are aided by Roger Baldwin, portrayed as an ambulance-chasing money-grubbing attorney who tries property cases and who sees the slaves, at least initially, as simply a different form of property dispute.

In the beginning Tappan and Joadson are not eager to have Baldwin's assistance, but they accept his legal efforts in the end, and he proves persuasive enough to win the first two trials. Through the course of those two trials Baldwin's attitudes change toward Cinque and the Africans, and by the picture's end he has become a committed abolitionist. The initial trial is before a Connecticut judge and jury with claims presented by the Spanish slavers rightful owners of Cuban-born slaves with a bill of salethe American sailors salvage on the high seasand the US government honoring their 1795 treaty obligations to return the ship and slaves to the Spanish government ; lurking in the background is a Spanish diplomat who intends to see the slaves returned to Cuba to be executed for murder.

Baldwin finds documents that seem to prove the ship originated in Africa and not in Cuba, which would show that the Africans were not born on plantations thus, legally considered Spanish slaves whose ship had strayed into American watersbut rather that they had been captured in Africa and were the fruits of the illegal international slave trade.

He chooses a young judge named Coughlin, whose ambition and political sentiments are so great that theoretically he should be easy to influence regarding the case's outcome allowing the national government to return the AMISTAD captives to Spain with expedition, defusing any international or north-south tension. The abolitionists sense that in this second trial, the deck has been stacked against them and they appeal to ex-President John Quincy Adams for assistance, but he turns them down.

Calhoun is threatening that civil war may be the outcome if the case is not resolved in a pro-slavery fashion. Through this interpreter and flashbacksCinque is able to describe how he was taken captive near his village, taken to the slave fortress Lomboko in Sierre Leone and then put on a slave ship and taken to Cuba.

He describes the systematic brutalization of the slaves, including the casual murder of 50 slaves who were tossed overboard when the Spaniards discovered they would not have enough food to keep all their captives alive for the entire Atlantic journey. The prosecutor openly doubts Cinque's claims, and gets him to admit that the Mende also keep slaves and that slavery has been known in Africa for generations.

However, through Cinque's testimony, Baldwin, the judge and others come to sense the horrors that the slaves have encountered, and despite his political ambitions, Coughlin the judge rules that the AMISTAD survivors should be given their freedom and returned to Africa, while the slavers should be jailed for murder. Apparently Cinque and the Africans will get their freedom, but the government at the behest of Van Buren appeals the case to the Supreme Court. After almost two hours in the film, Baldwin and Joadson are appealing to John Quincy Adams for help again, but this time he decides to assist them.

Communicating through his interpreter, Cinque sends a series of legal questions about jurisdiction and international treaties to Baldwin and Adams, provoking Adams to angrily the misuse of historical facts in amistad a movie by steven spielberg that Cinque by brought to meet him; the two men form a bond, and Cinque accompanies Adams and Baldwin to the Supreme Court trial.

In Washington, only one side of the case is presented: Baldwin looks on as Adams speaks to the court about heroism and the independence of the judicial branch. Adams presents the case as one of Cinque's heroism in the face of disastrous odds. Pointing to Cinque, Adams claims that "[h]e is the only true hero in this room.

If he were white, he wouldn't be standing [here] fighting for his life. If he were white. Have some backbone, even if it means civil war, Adams implies, and prove that our courts are truly independent from outside influence.

Two sentences from the case's opinion are read by a justice never identified as Joseph Story until the credits, and portrayed by Justice Blackmun indicating that the AMISTAD survivors are to receive their freedom.

After Cinque has his farewells with each of the film's principal characters Adams, Joadson, Baldwinhe is next shown on a boat destined for Africa. The film closes by showing each of the main characters and subtitles indicate their fate e. For those interested solely in the film's portrayal of legal events, it is barely average. At well over 2 hours, it is too long to show in a 50-minute college classroom. The film would not be well-suited for use in a legal history class, simply because it contains too much inaccurate or misleading information about the trials themselves as to its use as a supplementary film, used in conjunction with Howard Jones' MUTINY ON THE AMISTAD, that would present a variety of difficulties which the individual instructor would have to prepare for.

My historical references here are drawn from Jones' book. There are three key misrepresentations of individuals: Baldwin was an abolitionist when the case began, and could hardly be considered a man who would only see the property implications of a human rights struggle for freedom. His character's "development" on film from insensitive ambulance-chaser to abolitionist falsifies his early commitment to the anti-slavery movement see Jones, p.

The linguist of the film was not a bumbling idiot, but Josiah Gibbs, one of the foremost students of language, and it was he, not the fictional Joadson or Baldwin, who scoured the eastern ports looking for a sailor who spoke Mende before the conclusion of the second trial.

  • Cinque is calm, composed, and "cultivated" in a manner that is visually consistent with the dominant white society;
  • The linguist of the film was not a bumbling idiot, but Josiah Gibbs, one of the foremost students of language, and it was he, not the fictional Joadson or Baldwin, who scoured the eastern ports looking for a sailor who spoke Mende before the conclusion of the second trial;
  • Baldwin looks on as Adams speaks to the court about heroism and the independence of the judicial branch;
  • He chooses a young judge named Coughlin, whose ambition and political sentiments are so great that theoretically he should be easy to influence regarding the case's outcome allowing the national government to return the AMISTAD captives to Spain with expedition, defusing any international or north-south tension;
  • Throughout the film, the Mende people's case is appealed over and over again, not because of disagreements of the legality of their freedom, but because numerous individuals, including the President himself, fearing a loss in the upcoming election, decided that their own self-gain from the Africans being persecuted would be worth more than all of their lives;
  • In respect to historical film, therefore, I would argue that it is not only essential but also necessary for filmmakers to take certain liberties to promote amusement and thus increase viewer interest in their work.

Gibbs' role was turned to humorous advantage in the film to create some comic relief because most likely the moviemakers did not think audiences capable of remembering several complicated relationships, or did not want to introduce another white man sympathetic to the cause of the AMISTAD captives other than Tappan, Baldwin and Adams.

The third individual who life is seriously misrepresented on film is the district court judge. In real life, his name was Andrew Judson, and he was opposed to abolitionists before the trial began; his racial antipathies were strong p.

There are minor problems with characterization: Jones has been able to show that Cinque lied to his captors in America, although why he lied remains a mystery p. Certainly Cinque realized that telling partial truths and falsehoods might help him return to Africa, but the film never suggests he is anything other than honorable and heroic.

There is no evidence to suggest that Cinque assisted in the creation of the legal defenses mounted by Baldwin or Adams, as the film suggests. There are several important factual misrepresentations: It would complicate the film's storyline too much to explain that slavery still existed in the American north after the American Revolution, and so this fact is simply omitted from the film.

But its omission falsely heightens the anxiety the audience is supposed to feel every time a southerner like Calhoun mentions the words "civil war" which he would not likely do, but rather he might refer to disunion or secession. The crucial treaty governing the case was not only the one from 1795, which might require the slaves to be returned to Spain, but also the 1817 Anglo-Spanish treaty which outlawed the purchase of Africans in Africa for enslavement and the 1819 American-Spanish treaty which confirmed the 1795 Pinckney treaty p.

These first two hearings were omitted from the film, which proceeded directly to Judson's district court trial. Judson chose to move the trial from Hartford to New Haven in 1840, a place where people were more likely to be sympathetic to the AMISTAD Africans; the change of venue was simply dropped from the film, as were any subtitles to indicate where events in America occurred. The replacement of a local judge with the imaginary judge "Coughlin" for Van Buren's political gain is pure fantasy on the part of the film, and given Judson's original distaste for abolitionists, it is hard to imagine why Spielberg invented Coughlin: Judson seems an even more unsympathetic character whose change of heart could be considered almost miraculous.

The only purpose I could determine for substituting a crypto-Catholic judge in the movie seemed to be that it allowed gratuitous shots of a Catholic church and a further inquiry into the religious hypocrisy of any human professing Christianity while forcing men to remain in bondage, which was a pure plot device in the middle of the movie.

Omissions or distortions elsewhere in the film are similarly troubling. Certainly this is the most outrageous aspect of the case's history omitted from the film, for the President, Secretary of State, and district attorney agreed in early 1840 to a strategy that would subvert the entire course of justice, and violate the separation of powers, simply to be rid of a political bombshell before the 1840 election; their actions were paralleled by an escape plan prepared by some abolitionists, who were willing to violate the law in order to free the misuse of historical facts in amistad a movie by steven spielberg AMISTAD victims and send them to safety on the underground railroad p.

The second greatest legal inaccuracy in the film is how it depicts the influence of Cinque's testimony on the judge.

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Judson had already decided that Cinque and the other captives were African BEFORE Cinque took the stand to give testimony, and he announced this determination in court. Judson was not swayed by Cinque's words, but rather by the previous testimony of British observers, the two men who served as translators, and arguments made in the earlier hearings p. Additionally, in his district court decision, Judson granted that Cinque and the Africans were free, but he also required that they be returned to Africa by the government; they were not given their complete freedom, as the film implies after the district court trial.

The appeal from Judson's ruling, when it arrived at the Supreme Court, was heard by five Southern justices not seven, as claimed by the movie's voiceover, p.

When the Supreme Court heard Adams' appeals, only seven of the nine justices were present during oral argument not nine, as the film portrays. Connecticut district attorney Holabird was replaced by Attorney General Henry Gilpin, whose arguments for the government and Spain are completely omitted from the film. In Adams' summation, he described the pattern of executive interference with the AMISTAD court case and he also revealed to the court Van Buren's shocking 1840 plot to send the Africans to Cuba, regardless of the lower court's decision, another element missing from the film which may have influenced the Supreme Court's decision p.

Cinque was not in Washington for the Supreme Court arguments, but stayed in Connecticut; for the justices, Cinque and the other Africans remained an abstraction. The fabrication of new material most likely would be dismissed by Hollywood as "literary license," although one might argue that Joadson is supposed to represent the efforts of African-Americans who helped end slavery in this country.

Material related to the movie showed up at my office as I'm sure it did for some others on this discussion list with activities for students to "encourage critical thinking about the value of history in light of the long-faded chapter restored to American history in the film "Amistad.

For those who want to the misuse of historical facts in amistad a movie by steven spielberg more about her copyright challenge, visit the website at Cornell dedicated to both the original AMISTAD case as well as the new copyright suit http: The DreamWorks marketing department has been relentless in finding venues for promoting the movie: When I read the Blackmun piece, I realized that marketers must never sleep.

  • Spielberg has made a documentary about the Holocaust called Survivors of the Holocaust , and if he changed data in that, I would accuse him of this crime;
  • Furthermore, scene 11, the most vivid scene in the movie, is narrated by Cinque, who sits in the courtroom groomed and dressed in white;
  • There are three key misrepresentations of individuals:

The latest round of publicity sought by the DreamWorks team coincided with the film's release on December 12. This publicity has been of the more traditional form, using the actors involved in the film like Matthew McConaughey, who portrays Roger Baldwin, the young attorney who defended the AMISTAD slaveswith one significant addition: And it is Ms. Allen who has been the moving force behind this movie: Owens' book is listed in the AMISTAD film credits as the source for the film's main ideas, but it is a book few historians would rely upon: What has happened here is the same phenomena we have read about with other movies based upon historicized fiction: I'm not sure I even buy the argument that the movie will encourage interested viewers to read more good history: Spielberg want us to see and teach this film as if it WERE history, inaccuracies, inventions and all.

A question in the middle of the DreamWorks promotional literature really caught my eye: Spielberg intended for students to describe racism or list positive attributes of Cinque or Theodore Joadson the fictional African-American abolitionist portrayed in the movie by Morgan Freeman in answer to such a question, I do not think they themselves have really considered the question at all.

Spieberg, history is what moviemakers refer to as the "backstory": This background is basically unimportant enough that it doesn't deserve time on the screen, but it exists in the minds of the film characters, and sometimes becomes relevant to how a story on screen unfolds.

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If history is misrepresented on film, in the form of real people who are slandered like Baldwin or Gibbs or false people who are invented like Coughlin or Joadsonthat is just "literary license.

But the truth of history, if we as historians admit to any agreement on such a weighty topic, is that we must be honest and inclusive when we describe the past even the parts we may not care forand that history is complicated, especially when told from many viewpoints.

Unfortunately for the film, this means that some characters who might seem heroic get caught telling lies, or judges who might be thought racist can have changes of heart. Spielberg has done, as he has done in most of his excellent films, is engage in storytelling--but we know that storytelling is not the same as history, although Ms.

Spielberg would claim that they have chosen the most significant facts, and they have complicated the historical viewpoints presented in the film most notably through the off-and-on use of subtitles.

The misuse of historical facts in amistad a movie by steven spielberg

I agree with Professor Jones about the film's essential truths and I would like to see more films tackle historical topics, but I am bothered by the fact that DreamWorks is marketing this film through packets to teachers, in magazines or on talkshows as if it were history, the truth--and it is not. If they presented this work as students in our classrooms, we would flunk them. What good is learning history? I would answer that it is to be truthful about the past, in order to better understand both the past and the present.

Allen and Spielberg may have gotten the second part of that statement correct, but they are nowhere near the first. If you would like a copy of the DreamWorks packet described in this review, please send your request to Lifetime Learning Systems, Inc.

Copyright c 1997 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net h-net.

  1. And it is Ms.
  2. Fifty-three captured West Africans did stage a bloody mutiny aboard a Cuban slave schooner in the summer of 1839. I knew then that steven spielberg had a historical mini-series written by steven in 2007 the arab league voted to boycott spielberg's movies after he.
  3. For those who want to learn more about her copyright challenge, visit the website at Cornell dedicated to both the original AMISTAD case as well as the new copyright suit http. This latter goal can only be accomplished if individuals are drawn to the film, if their interest is piqued in some distinct way.
  4. What good is learning history? The film closes by showing each of the main characters and subtitles indicate their fate e.