David Franzoni wrote the screenplay for the Steven Spielberg-directed movie La Amistad. It is based on a true story that occurred in 1839. The film tells how Africans were captured, sold into slavery, freed, and eventually returned to Africa. It also describes how their kidnappers were overthrown. The movie stars Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman and has earned a significant spot in the cinematic depiction of the Atlantic slave trade. Therefore, this article will summarize the movie and discuss its relation to African slavery.
A cohort of Africans is abducted and forced into slavery in the film, set in an era when enslavement has already been recognized as an illegal trade on merchant ships. These people were seized in Africa and sold as slaves; at the time of the occurrence, they had been taken to Cuba and were getting ready to be transported to a new location, Spain, to work as enslaved people (Milano). The movie’s main subject is the legal standing of Africans who rebel against their kidnappers on merchant ships and are subjected to trial in court. The court must determine whether the accused were transported from Africa unlawfully and thus have a right to self-defense against abduction or whether they were sired slaves and are consequently eligible for the death penalty.
The movie’s first scene takes place on the ship Amistad, where Cinque manages to liberate himself from his chains and set his fellow slaves free. As they are transported from a slave market in Havana to a different location in Cuba, the slaves rebel against the kidnappers. The two purchasers are left unharmed and vow to direct the ship to Africa. Instead, they steer it into American seas, and the Africans end up in court (Milano). They initially have poor representation in their defense group, led by Roger Baldwin, a real estate attorney. He rests his argument on property law and gradually begins to understand his clients as people. Two Boston civil rights activists, Tappan, an immigrant, and Joadson, a formerly enslaved person, support this decision. Finally, John Quincy Adams, the former president, makes a robust case for men’s liberation on appeal.
The movie depicts the transatlantic slave trade, which was prevalent in the 18th century. In that era, approximately ten to twelve million Africans were enslaved and taken to the Caribbean, south, and North America to work as laborers. While in transit, more than 1.25 million Africans died (Wax, 2019). The movie, therefore, depicts how Africans were captured into slavery and how the Africans who were held in slavery were not weaklings; instead, they battled for their liberation. Alongside these pictures are depictions of the Middle Passage, frequently cited as the movie’s most impactful element. The camera moves all over the shackled bodies of the slaves in the slave ship’s hold. In these sequences, illness, violence, decapitation, and death are shown; blood is splashed all over the ship’s board as the visceral realities of slavery are brought to light.
Another theme in the movie is how the court battles effectively highlight the conflict between the factions who wished to keep slavery alive in the United States and other regions of the world and the civil rights activists. Considering that, at the time, the southern region of the United States was primarily dependent on slave labor on its farms, proponents of slavery were adamant about maintaining the slaves in the country as a source of work (Wax, 2019). The grit and determination of the enslaved people are a vivid illustration of how enslaved people’s mere willpower propelled them to fight for their liberation under the most trying conditions.
In my opinion, La Amistad is an excellent movie that conveys the description of the misery the slaves had to go, and it does an excellent job of highlighting the terrible nature of their oppressors. It gives its African protagonists identities and faces, in contrast to how frequently they are portrayed in films as nameless victims. The man known as Cinque appears as a strong character who was formerly a liberated farmer who had lost his wife and children. We observe his wife, his community, and a glimpse of his existence; in doing so, we can see how viciously he was torn away from his home and his aspiration.
In conclusion, torture and survival are the two central topics that make the movie stand out. The movie’s tone is established in the opening moments, which show the enslaved Africans seizing control of the Amistad, slaughtering its sailors, and taking the ship. Additionally, the decision to emphasize the human body to communicate the story of the Amistad and, consequently, the atrocities of the Atlantic slave trade distinguishes it from other works.
Milano, C. H. I. L. I. S.-. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2022, from https://uk.chili.com/content/amistad-1997/375c1e8e-5e1c-401a-8b29-09b0dfdac0a
Wax, D. D. (2019). Black immigrants: the slave trade in colonial Maryland. In Slave Trade and Migration (pp. 444-460). Routledge.