The Representation of African Americans in Steven Spielberg’s 'Amistad'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

23 Pages, Grade: 1,3




I. Plot Summary of Amistad

II. Ways to Amistad

III. How Close to History is Amistad?
1. The Depiction of Slavery
2. The African American Actors

IV. The Representation of Blacks in Amistad: Customs and Culture
1. The Abolitionist Theodore Joadson
2. The Meeting between John Quincy Adams and Cinqué
3. Language
4. Regional Differences within Mendedom
5. The Africans Encounter the White People’s Religion
6. Burial Rites
7. Traditional Dancing and Singing

V. The Representation of Brutality
1. The Schooner Amistad
2. The Middle Passage

VI. Comparison: Representation of Blacks in Amistad and Birth of a Nation


VII. Works Cited


In this research paper I deal with the representation of the African Americans in Spielberg’s film Amistad, that has bee issued in 1997.

I chose this film because it deals with a very important case in American and African American history. The verdict of the Supreme Court had a great impact on the abolitionist movement and therefore on American history. Although the trial was not on the issue of slavery but of cargo, in the head of the people it soon became the issue of slavery, slaves and abolition of slavery.

The Amistad case did not only become known in the near vicinity of the New Haven jail where the Africans were being held in prison. The news of the captured Amistad Africans spread like fire and U.S. newspapers same as international newspapers featured them on the title pages.

In the following chapters I will go deeper into the general representation of the Africans in the film, the preparations to the film Amistad, and the differences between the film and actual history. Doing that, I will also compare the representation of the slaves, respectively the Africans, in Amistad to the representation of the slaves in Birth of a Nation. I will add this issue in different chapters when I think it is appropriate, and in one chapter I will specifically deal with the main differences.

Natalie Davis calls Amistad a ‘feature film’ because those kind of films are often described as inventory and with no connection to the experiences that have been real and to the historical past (5). In how far this really applies to Amistad and how the Africans/African Americans are represented in the film I will explore in this research paper. In order to answer these questions I studied the film and secondary material on the film and the general issue of Slaves on Screen, which also is the title of Natalie Zemon Davis’ book about different films that deal with this subject. For information about the Amistad Africans I consulted Howard Jones’ book Mutiny on the Amistad, that describes the historical events in detail. Apart from that, Black City Cinema by Paula J. Massood and the internet research project Exploring Amistad of the Mystic Seaport Museum were very helpful.

I. Plot Summary of Amistad

In the year 1839, a group of forty-four Africans1 are seized by slave traders and with hundreds of other Africans imprisoned at the fortress of Lomboko. There, they are sold and then transported illegally across the Atlantic on the ship Tecora. After arriving in Cuba, the Africans are bought by two Spanish slave traders. The Cuban purchasers Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes bring them onto the ship La Amistad, where a revolt of the Africans takes place. During this revolt, one of the Africans, Sengbe Pieh, who later would be known as Cinqué, takes over the leading role. He has been the one who made the revolt possible because he has managed to work free of his chains. Now, the Africans have the command over the schooner Amistad and order the two survivors Ruiz and Montes to sail them back to Africa. Because those two deceive them, the schooner ends up near the American shore and the Africans are taken into custody by an American ship and are arrested.

Quickly Spain demands the extradition of the Africans, claiming that they are Cuban slaves on a Spanish ship and therefore belong to Spain where they would face trial for piracy and murder. American abolitionists on the other side believe that those Africans were not Cuban plantation slaves at all, and so they begin the struggle to win back the African’s freedom. One of the people, the abolitionists, represented by the black abolitionist Theodore Joadson and the white abolitionist Lewis Tappan, have on their side, is the unknown real estate lawyer Roger Baldwin. The ex-slave Richard Covey, who now serves in the British navy, functions as translator because he himself was born in Africa and knows Cinqué’s mother tongue. First, Baldwin only argues the case in terms of property issues2 with no abolitionist thoughts, but later he also understands the meaning of this trial and the consequences, the verdict ‘not guilty’ would mean for the abolitionists.

But powerful forces have aligned against Baldwin's cause. President Martin Van Buren who wants to please the Southern voters begins to pull the strings behind the scenes to ensure that the Africans will not be acquitted.

So, the case is brought to trial and goes trough all the courts of the American judicial system until it ends up in the Supreme Court. Now, former President John Quincy Adams joins the abolitionists to defend the Africans. After Adam’s enthusiastic address to the jury, the Supreme Court rules in favour of the Africans and acknowledges that they were born in freedom and had the right to stand up against their kidnappers, and now are released from prison to return back home. The Africans, among them Cinqué, who also testified in court, return to their home country, accompanied by missionaries. The audience learns from the writing on the screen that Cinqué’s village has been destroyed in a civil war among his own people and that his family is missing, assumable dead.

II. Ways to Amistad

One of the initiators to shoot Amistad was the black actor Debbie Allen. After reading a book about the slave revolt on the Amistad in 1978, she was “stunned, overjoyed, proud, outraged, and in tears” (Massood 72).

In the Making of Amistad feature on the DVD she states: “When I read it, I felt this was the story that the world needed to know. Certainly this is about my ancestors but certainly it is about all American ancestors.”

She was so amazed by the story of the slaves that she started to put together a research collection especially on the heroism of Cinqué and the ship Amistad over the years. Finally, in 1994, the initial moment for her was watching Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. In her opinion, Spielberg was the director who could bring the story of Cinqué and the slave revolt on screen. Davis quotes Spielberg, who himself adopted two African American children: “From the moment I heard of him, Cinqué took up residence in my mind. […] I am making this film for my black children and my white children. They all need to know about this story” (72-73). To be as close to reality as they could be, they studied history books3, court records that still exist of the Amistad trials, newspaper articles, and consulted scholars, who for example taught the actors who had to speak Mende, the language (Massood 73).

III. How Close to History is Amistad?

Different criteria affected the historical truth of the film and the ‘look’ of the past in Amistad: A feature film always has to limit the story of a historical event into a concrete and limited story like Amistad does (Massood 6). In this case, Joseph Cinqué is the protagonist of the story, together with the real estate lawyer Roger Baldwin, the black abolitionist Theodore Joadson and the white abolitionist Lewis Tappan, the ex-slave Richard Covey, who now serves in the British navy, and the congressman and former President John Quincy Adams. The story is told as much as possible from the Africans’ point of view, especially Cinqué’s. Spielberg tries to show what their view of America is, their view of religion, their view of the mutiny, and their view of their imprisonment.

Although Debbie Allen and Steven Spielberg were eager to tell a true story and to “mirror as closely as possible the context in which the story occurred, as well as the actual events as they unfolded,” (Davis 73) they made some changes in the story or people in order to give the film more clarity and for dramatic purposes. Persons are changed or added, sentences in court are altered to some extent, and times and meetings are shifted. In the following chapters I will go deeper into the differences of the film and the actual history and the effect, the changes have on the film and the audience’s reception of the film. It will come clear that Spielberg’s decision to change people, facts, or events can be put down to his intention to express different ideas. One also has to take into consideration that Spielberg had to shoot a movie that was applicable for present-day audiences. In my opinion that is also why some changes were made that differ from the actual history. Massood claims that „no matter how accurate or realistic the films are in visualizing black urban life, they are always […] self-conscious, highly-mediated acts” (7).

1. The Depiction of Slavery

Similar to other films made in the 1990s like Sankofa (Haile Gerima, 1993), Jefferson in Paris (James Ivory, 1995), Nightjohn (Charles Burnett, 1996), Beloved (Jonathan Demme, 1998), and A House Divided (John Kent Harrison, 2000), Amistad (Steven Spielberg, 1997) returns to the past and portrays slavery and slaves in different aspects, and at the same time creates with this theme a relationship with the present.

In one way, Amistad and all the other movies that reintroduce slavery and slaves back into the American film, returned to the ‘antebellum idyll’ of the earliest films like D.W. Griffith’ Birth of a Nation (1915), so Massood. She continues, that this reintroduction of the presentation of slaves and slavery on screen, breathed new life into Ed Guerrero’s plantation genre4, that disappeared in the 1970s and that brought the audience to confront a number of issues about the creation and ideological function of these representations, narratives, and images, persistent so long after the abolition of slavery itself and the collapse of the antebellum South. (Guerrero 10).

According to Massood the answer to Guerrero’s ‘challenge’ can be found when taking a closer look at the way, Amistad and the other historical films mentioned rework old screen myths surrounding slavery.

Massood differentiates two basic ways in which slavery on screen is presented in those films: In the first way, slavery is depicted as a labour system in which the labourers are being dehumanised. Nevertheless, the slaves are not presented as helpless victims but as human beings that can fight for their rights and especially fight back their enemies by legal means as in Amistad or by escaping their torturers.

Adding to the first way, the slaves are presented in the second way as integer to their family during and after slavery, no matter what tough living and working conditions they have to face (216-217).

In how far depicts Amistad slavery as it was depicted in the earlier films about this subject? Is there really a return to the ‘antebellum idyll’ when recent films represent slavery?

2. The African American Actors

The cast for the Africans consisted only of West Africans. Some of them were still living in Africa, others, like the actor of Cinqué, Djimon Hounsou, were living in America or Europe (Davis 73). Hounsou was born in West Africa but raised in France.


1 In the film, President Martin van Buren mentions that the group that has been captured consists of forty-four Africans. It is not clear if the four/five children are already counted or if one has to add these. In a scene that plays in the editorial office of a newspaper, one hears Joadson say that “about forty of `em, including four or five children” were imprisoned. Howard Jones claims in Mutiny on the Amistad that at the beginning of the journey of the Amistad, there were fifty-three Africans, the four children already included. After the mutiny and when the ship was seized by the USS Washington, thirty-nine slaves had remained alive (5). The internet research project Exploring Amistad refers to a number of forty-nine Africans plus four children being bought by the slave traders Ruiz and Montes and a number of thirty-nine surviving adults plus four children after the seizure of the Amistad (Timeline).

2 The assumption: The Africans are not Spanish property since they are not from Cuban plantations but kidnapped and therefore free.

3 In the final credits of Amistad William A. Owen’s Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad, is referred to as major source of reference material.

4 A number of films, spanning approximately sixty years and including Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind (1939)

Excerpt out of 23 pages


The Representation of African Americans in Steven Spielberg’s 'Amistad'
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Englisches Seminar)
Playing in the Dark
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amistad, steven spielberg, african americans, films, Representation of black people, birth of a nation, slavery, african american actors, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Joadson, Burial Rites, Traditional Dancing and Singing, The Middle Passage, Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, D.W. Griffith, Slaves on Screen, African American Image in Film, Black City Cinema
Quote paper
Anna Zafiris (Author), 2004, The Representation of African Americans in Steven Spielberg’s 'Amistad', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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