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Amistad

November 3, 2015

AmistadBased on a true story, “Amistad” is the saga of 53 Africans, whose failed mutiny, eventual capture and ensuing trial led to one of our nations most poignant and riveting challenges to our nations democratic principles, as stated by our founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence.

It begins on a stormy night off the coast of Cuba, where Cinque and his fellow African slaves break free from their shackles and take over the Spanish slave ship La Amistad. Attempting to sail back to Sierra Leone, West Africa, and lacking navigational skills, they land off the coast of Connecticut, where they are arrested by the U.S. Navy and quickly charged with murder and piracy.

The insistent dignity of abolitionist Theodore Joadson and the young real estate attorney, Roger Baldwin elucidate the power of the human spirit as they take on the monumental task of seeking justice for these unfortunate souls. The ensuing trial involves the government of Spain, who protests the violation of their property rights; the South, which relies heavily on slavery; former U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, who comes out of retirement to take on the African’s cause, which eventually goes all the way to the Supreme Court; and the current president, Martin Van Buren

Throughout the trial, the Africans show tremendous dignity and determination. The compelling narrative of their captivity, as told by Cinque, is not only traumatic but dramatically reveals the horrors that those who were put into slavery had to face. And the climatic address that John Quincy Adams makes before the Supreme Court dramatizes the power of our Constitution and the liberties that it provides us.

Viewing this film permanently changes a person’s perception of slavery. Especially that of early American slavery and slave trading. A clear message celebrates every man’s unique value. Human life is shown to have great value, regardless of race. The brutality perpetrated against the slaves is shown as inexcusable and vile. In addition, the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is shown in lingering detail via a picture Bible acquired by Cinque, the leader of the captured Africans. When John Quincy Adams presents his case to the Supreme Court, he calls on them to recognize “right” and “wrong.” They do so. When Cinque is forced to kill during the mutiny, a close-up of his face reveals that he does not kill for fun, or even revenge, but to live. His revulsion, remorse and terror are notably portrayed in his expression. This is not senseless violence, but it is extremely graphic in portrayal.

“Steven Spielberg is known for such blockbuster movies as E. T. (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993). He has been most honored, however, for Schindler’s List (1993), his retelling of the story of one man’s resistance to the Holocaust. Now with Amistad, Spielberg has again dramatized an historical event of resistance to corporate evil. The film has such symbolic importance for another minority group—African-Americans — that some have questioned Spielberg’s right to tell their story. After all, isn’t he Jewish? But tell it he does, and the film has moral implications for us all.

The movie dramatizes the story of a group of Africans who rise up against

their slave-trading captors and are, as a result, brought to trial in a New Eng­land court. But that is only one of the stories that this film tells so well. There is the story of slavery, the story of an African named Cinque, the story of Chris­tian abolitionists, the story of two presidents and their own struggles with a nation divided, and even the gospel story. The importance of the historical event may have been the initial reason the movie was made, but the interplay of its various stories is the reason you should see it.

“Let’s take one story at a time. In 1839, fifty-three Africans threw off their chains on board the Spanish slave ship Amistad, killed most of the crew, and tried forcing two of the survivors to sail them home to Africa. Eventually cap­tured by the U.S. Navy because their guides had instead sailed them along America’s eastern seaboard, the Africans and their charismatic leader, Cinque, were forced to go through a series of complicated legal proceedings as their fate became a focal point for the antislavery movement. Former President John Quincy Adams ultimately pleaded the case for their freedom before the U.S. Supreme Court. Yes, Spielberg has certainly-brought the skill (and glitz!) of Hollywood to this historical recreation, and critics may argue minor detail (Mor­gan Freeman’s abolitionist character is fictitious; Adams’s speech is not the orig­inal words). But the power of this story to name our national sin is evident to all who have eyes to see.

“While this story based on history shows the inhumanity of humankind (as the Africans are treated as mere property) and the degradation of slavery for both slave and slave owner, it is only when the human story of Cinque unfolds that the movie becomes compelling. John Quincy Adams, when pressed by the black abolitionist to take the case, asks, “But what is their story Mr. Joadson?” Though the trial is at one level about laws and property, it is in reality about people—Africans who have suffered unjustly. Their story needs telling. The abolitionist and the young lawyer defending the Africans press Cinque to tell his story And tell it he does. We see Cinque’s family in Africa. We see his kidnapping and sale into slavery We see the horrifying voyage to Cuba and the atrocities inflicted on the prisoners (note: the violence is too graphic for young children). We see the dignity, intellect, passion, and grief of a fellow human being. And then we weep for the shame of slavery; our shame and our country’s shame. The power of this human story is the power to convict and to call out for repentance.

“Yet a third story is present in the movie—the gospel story. Some reviewers have questioned this insertion, but the Christian presence in opposing slavery is historically accurate. We see the Christian abolitionists being portrayed at times humorously, at other times cynically, at still other times kindly. And never has film recorded a more beautiful telling of the gospel story than when one of the Africans tells the story to Cinque using only the illustrations from the Bible an abolitionist had given him. From the slave of Egypt crying out to the of salvation, to the baby Jesus’ birth, to his teaching and healing, to the c and then the resurrection, we hear the good news in all its simplicity and po Although the African storyteller is fearful that they will be killed, he can to Christ rising into the heavens and believe that “where we’ll go if we die d n’t look so bad.” The power of the story brings hope and freedom.”Like Schindler’s List, Amistad does not simply portray the dehumanization caused by racial bigotry; it also reveals human goodness even within evil systems, hope within horror. How is such hope possible? Partly, it rises up out of the indomitable human spirit. At his trial, Cinque cries out for “Give us free!” But Spielberg hints at something more. There is also God’s at work in and through us.”. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue – R. Johnston pp. p. 103f

John Quincy Adams: [to the Court] This man is black. We can all see that. But can we also see as easily that which is equally true: that he is the only true hero in this room? Now, if he were white, he wouldn’t be standing before this court fighting for his life. If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn’t be standing, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about him. The great authors of our times would fill books about him. His story would be told and retold, in our classrooms. Our children, because we would make sure of it, would know his name as well as they know Patrick Henry’s. Yet, if the South is right, what are we to do with that embarrassing, annoying document, The Declaration of Independence? What of its conceits? “All men created equal,” “inalienable rights,” “life, liberty,” and so on and so forth? What on Earth are we to do with this? I have a modest suggestion. [tears papers in half]

Joseph Cinque: Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free. Give us, us free.

Yamba: [looking at a Bible]

Joseph Cinque: You don’t have to pretend to be interested in that. Nobody’s watching but me.

Yamba: I’m not pretending. I’m beginning to understand it. [outside, a priest blesses himself] Their people have suffered more than ours. Their lives were full of suffering. [turns to a picture of the newborn Jesus Christ] Then he was born, and everything changed.

Joseph Cinque: Who is he?

Yamba: I don’t know, but everywhere he goes he is followed by the sun. [turns to a picture of Jesus healing a man] Here he is healing people with his hands… [shows Jesus defending Mary Magdalene] protecting them… [shows Jesus and the children] being given children…

Joseph Cinque: [sees Jesus walking on water] What’s this?

Yamba: He could also walk across the sea. But then something happened. He was captured, accused of some sort of crime. [shows Jesus with Pontius Pilate] Here he is with his hands tied.

Joseph Cinque: He must have done something.

Yamba: Why? What did we do? Whatever it was, it was serious enough to kill him for it. Do you want to see how they killed him? [shows the crucifixion of Jesus]

Joseph Cinque: This is just a story, Yamba.

Yamba: But look, that’s not the end of it. [shows the disciples taking Jesus’ body down] His people took his body down from this… thing… this… [signs the cross in the air]: They took him into a cave. They wrapped him in a cloth, like we do. [shows the Resurrection of Jesus] They thought he was dead, but he appeared before his people again and spoke to them. Then, finally, he rose into the sky. [shows the Ascension of Jesus] [the priest prays in the background] This is where the soul goes when you die. [shows a picture of Heaven in the clouds] This is where we’re going when they kill us. It doesn’t look so bad…

John Quincy Adams: Now, you understand you’re going to the Supreme Court. Do you know why?

Ens. Covey: [translating for Cinque] It is the place where they finally kill us.

[the slave fortress in Sierra Leone is being bombarded from sea] Captain Fitzgerald: Fire. Fire. Fire. Take a letter, Ensign. To His Honor, the United States Secretary of State, Mr. John Forsyth. My dear Mr. Forsyth, it is my great pleasure to inform you that you are, in fact, correct. The slave fortress in Sierra Leone does not exist.

Baldwin: Cinque describes the cold-blooded murder of a significant portion of the people on board the Tecora. Mr Holabird sees this as a paradox. Do you, sir?

Captain Fitzgerald: Often when slavers are intercepted, or believe they may be, they simply throw all their prisoners overboard and thereby rid themselves of the evidence of their crime.

Baldwin: Drown hundreds of people?

Captain Fitzgerald: Yes.

Holabird: It hardly seems a lucrative business to me, this slave trading. Going to all that trouble, rounding everybody up, only to throw them all overboard.

Captain Fitzgerald: No, it’s very lucrative.

Baldwin: If only we could corroborate Cinque’s story somehow with evidence of some kind.

Captain Fitzgerald: The inventory. If you look, there’s a notation made on May tenth, correcting the number of slaves on board, reducing their number by fifty.

Baldwin: What does that mean?

Captain Fitzgerald: Well, if you look at it in conjunction with Cinque’s testimony, I would say that it means this: the Tecora crew had greatly underestimated the amount of provisions required for their journey, and solved the problem by throwing fifty people overboard.

Joseph Cinque: [in Mende] What kind of a place is this where you almost mean what you say? Where laws almost work? How can you live like that?

John Quincy Adams: [to the court] James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington… John Adams. We’ve long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we have feared in doing so, we might acknowledge that our individuality, which we so, so revere, is not entirely our own. Perhaps we’ve feared an… an appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But, we’ve come to understand, finally, that this is not so. We understand now, we’ve been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding… that who we are *is* who we were. We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, ourselves. Give us the courage to do what is right. And if it means civil war? Then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.

US Secretary of State Forsyth: The only thing John Quincy Adams will be remembered for is his middle name.

Ens. Covey: [translating for Cinque to John Quincy Adams] I will call to the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me, and they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.

John Quincy Adams: [to the court] Well, gentlemen, I must say I differ with the keen minds of the South and with our President, who apparently shares their views, offering that the natural state of mankind is instead – and I know this is a controversial idea – is freedom. Is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man, woman or child will go to regain it once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try, against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.

Holabird: I am looking at the same inventory, Captain, and I am sorry, I don’t see where it says ‘Today we threw fifty slaves overboard’, on May tenth or any other day.

Captain Fitzgerald: As, of course, you would not.

Holabird: I do see that the cargo weight changed. They reduced the poundage, I see. But that is all.

Captain Fitzgerald: It’s simple, ghastly arithmetic.

Holabird: Well, for you, perhaps. I may need a quill and parchment, and a better imagination.

Captain Fitzgerald: And what poundage do you imagine the entry may refer to, sir? A mast and sails perhaps?

John Quincy Adams: Well, when I was an attorney, a long time ago, young man, I err… I realized, after much trial and error, that in the courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins. In un-lawyerlike fashion, I give you that scrap of wisdom free of charge.

Tappan: [to Theodore] They may be of more value to our struggle in death than in life.

[a band of abolitionists approach the outer gate of the prison where the Amistad refugees are being held for trial] Fala: [in Mende] Who are they, do you think? [the abolitionists kneel to pray]

Joseph Cinque: [in Mende] Looks like they are going to be sick.

Abolitionists: [singing] Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…

Fala: [in Mende] They’re entertainers!

Abolitionists: [singing] … that saved a wretch like me…

Joseph Cinque: [in Mende] But why do they look so miserable?

Baldwin: Captain Fitzerald, please explain to us your primary duties in Her Majesty’s Navy.

Captain Fitzgerald: To patrol the Ivory Coast for slave ships.

Baldwin: Because?

Captain Fitzgerald: Because slavery is banned in British law, sir.

Baldwin: Yet the abduction of freemen from the British Protectorate of Sierra Leone and their illegal transportation to the New World, as described by Cinque, is not unheard of, is it?

Captain Fitzgerald: Not even unusual, regrettably.

Calderon: What’s most bewildering to Her Majesty… is this arrogant independence of the American courts. After all, if you cannot rule the courts, you cannot rule.

Martin Van Buren: Señor Calderon, as any true American will tell you, it’s the independence of our courts that keeps us free.

Theodore Joadson: They were first detained by officers of a brig off Long Island. They were conveyed to New Haven – under what authority, I don’t know – and given over to the local constabulary. About forty of them, including four or five children. The arraignment is day after tomorrow. I can only assume that the charge is murder.

Tappan: I’ll see what I can do about that.

US Secretary of State Forsyth: [to Judge Juttson] These slaves, Your Honor, are by rights the property of Spain.

Lt. Gedney: [to Judge Juttson] We, Thomas R. Gedney and Richard W. Meade, whilst commissioned U.S. Naval officers, stand before this court as private citizens, and do hereby claim salvage on the high seas of the Spanish ship La Amistad and all her cargo.

Attorney: Your Honor, here are the true owners of the slaves.

Judge Juttson: Order!

Attorney: On their behalf, I am in possession of a receipt for purchase executed in Havana, Cuba, June twenty-sixth, 1839. I do hereby call on this court to immediately surrender these goods!

Theodore Joadson: There remains one task undone. One vital task the Founding Father’s left to their sons…

John Quincy Adams: Yeah?

Theodore Joadson: …before their thirteen colonies could precisely be called United States. And that task, Sir, as you well know, is crushing slavery.

Baldwin: On the other hand, let’s say they aren’t slaves. If they aren’t slaves, in which case they were illegally acquired, weren’t they? Forget mutiny, forget piracy, forget murder and all the rest. Those are subsequent irrelevant occurrences. Ignore everything but the pre-eminent issue at hand. The wrongful transfer of stolen goods. Either way, we win.

Tappan: Sir, this war must be waged on the battlefield of righteousness.

Baldwin: The what?

Baldwin: [holds up a knife] Have you seen this before?

Joseph Cinque: [in Mende] I could kill you with my bare hands before you raise that sword.

Baldwin: This belongs to you? Does this? No, no. Umm, I need to know where you’re from.

Amistad Slave #1: [in Mende] He reminds me of that Fula of Baoma, you know the one who hires himself to scrape elephant dung from the crop rows.

Amistad Slave #2: [in Mende] A dung-scraper might be just the kind of man we need right now.

Baldwin: [point to a map] Here, Africa? Is this where you’re from? A-fri-ca?

Baldwin: [to the court] My clients’ journey did not begin in Havana, as they claim and keep claiming more and more emphatically. No, my clients’ journey began much, much further away.

US Secretary of State Forsyth: This could take us all one long step closer to civil war.

Martin Van Buren: Over this?

Baldwin: [to Cinque] Cinque, I need you to tell me how you got here.

Baldwin: Our president, our big, big man has appealed the decision to our Supreme Court.

Ens. Covey: [translating for Cinque to John Quincy Adams] What does that mean?

Baldwin: We have to try the case again.

Baldwin: [to Cinque] I said this before the judge, this is almost how it works here, almost.

John Quincy Adams: [to the court] Your Honor, I derive much consolation from the fact that my colleague, Mr. Baldwin here, has argued the case in so able, and so complete a manner, as to leave me scarcely anything to say. However… why are we here? How is it that a simple, plain property issue has should now find itself so ennobled as to be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States of America?

John Quincy Adams: [to the court] This is the most important case ever to come before this court. Because what it in fact concerns is the very nature of man.

Baldwin: [writing a letter to John Quincy Adams] To His Excellency John Quincy Adams, Massachusetts member, House of Representatives. I have understood from Mr. Joadson that you are acquainted with the plight of the Amistad Africans. If that is true, then you are aware that we have been at every step successful in our presentation of their case. Yet despite this and despite the unlikelihood of President Van Buren’s re-election, he has appealed our most recent favorable decision to the highest court in the land. As I’m sure you are well aware, seven of nine of these Supreme Court justices are themselves Southern slave owners. Sir, we need you. If ever there was a time for a man to cast aside his daily trappings and array himself for battle, that time has come. Cicero once said, epends on the life of one most brave and excellent man. In our time, in this instappealing to Claudius in defense of the Republic, that the whole result of this entire war dance, I believe it depends on two. A courageous man at present in irons in New Haven, named Cinque… and you sir. Sincerely Robert S. Baldwin, attorney-at-law.

John Quincy Adams: What is their story, by the way?

Theodore Joadson: Sir?

John Quincy Adams: What is their story?

Theodore Joadson: Why, they’re um… they’re from west Africa.

John Quincy Adams: No. What is their story?

Theodore Joadson: [exhales and looks confused]

John Quincy Adams: Mr. Joadson, you’re from where originally?

Theodore Joadson: Why, Georgia, sir.

John Quincy Adams: Georgia.

Theodore Joadson: Yes, sir.

John Quincy Adams: Does that pretty much sum up what you are? A Georgian? Is that your story? No you’re an ex-slave whose devoted his life to the abolition of slavery, and overcoming the obstacles and hardships along the way, I should imagine. That’s your story, isn’t it?

Theodore Joadson: [smiles and nods]

John Quincy Adams: [laughs] You and this young so-called lawyer have proven you know what they are. They’re Africans. Congratulations. What you don’t know, and as far as I can tell haven’t bothered in the least to discover, is who they are. Right?

Ens. Covey: [Translating for Cinque after he has been set free] What did you say to them?

John Quincy Adams: Huh?

Ens. Covey: [translates again] What words did you use to persuade them?

John Quincy Adams: [looks at Cinque] Yours.

Theodore Joadson: I am embarrassed to admit that I was under the misconception that our Executive and Judicial Branches were separate.

John Quincy Adams: [holding up a nursery plant with tender branches] No more so than these, Mr. Joadson. No more so than these. Now you know.

Joseph Cinque: [through translator] I’m not a “big man”. Just a lucky one.

Tappan: This news – well of course it’s bad news – but the truth is they may be more valuable to our struggle in death than in life. Martyrdom, Mr. Joadson. From the dawn of Christianity we have seen no stronger power for change. You know it’s true.

Theodore Joadson: What is true, Mr. Tappan – and believe me when I tell you that I have seen this – is that there are some men whose hatred of slavery is stronger than any, except for the slave himself.

Tappan: If you wish to inspire such hatred in a man, Mr. Joadson, speak to him in that fashion and it may come true.

John Quincy Adams: How is it that a simple plain property issue should now find itself so ignobled as to be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States of America? I mean, do we fear that all courts which found for as easily somehow missed the truth, is that it? Or is it rather our great and consuming fear of Civil War that has allowed us to heap symbolism upon a simple case than ever has been? And now it would have us disregard truth, even as it stands before us tall and proud as a man. The truth… the truth, has been driven from this case like a slave from court to court, wretched and destitute.

John C. Calhoun: We are inferior in one area: we’re not as proficient in the art of gain. We’re not as wealthy as our northern neighbors. We’re still struggling. Take away our life’s blood now, and… well, we all know what happens then. North and South. They become the masters, and we the slaves. But not without a fight! [the other dinner guests are momentarily silenced]

Martin Van Buren: Senator Calhoun is being modest. He’s not inferior in another area, the art of exaggeration.

John C. Calhoun: Ask yourself, Senor Calderon. What court wants to be responsible for the spark that ignites the firestorm? What President wants to be in office when it comes crashing down around him? Certainly no court before this one. Certainly no President, before this one. So, judge us not too harshly, sir. And bid her majesty ‘like. Because the real determination our courts and our President must make, is not whether this rag-tag bunch of Africans raised swords against their enemy… but rather, must *we?*

Judge Coglin: Were they born in Africa? Since the answer to that fundamental question shall so heavily govern every determination of this Court, I ask it again. Were they born in Africa?

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