Spielberg’s Amistad is not a very good history lesson, and at times is not a very good film. Like many Hollywood productions inspired by actual events, it compresses timelines, eliminates some characters while inventing or mischaracterizing others, and rearranges or ignores relevant historical events to better suit its story.
The film’s most historically accurate segment is its opening, relating in bloody detail the revolt of the slaves against the Spanish crew. Cinque frees himself from his chains, attacks and kills members of the crew, frees his fellow would-be slaves, and together they kill most of the rest of the crew and assume control of the ship. Cinque’s killing of the Captain of the Amistad is especially brutal: the Captain is run-through with a sword, and we see his blood dripping through the deck into the hold below, where many of the Africans aboard still sit. In reality, the Captain was not killed by a sword but strangled, though this turns out to be a minor inaccuracy.
The film’s depiction of conditions aboard the Amistad, and aboard the slave ship Tecora, shown later in flashback, are mostly accurate. The cargo holds of slave ships were dark, filthy places, crammed wall to wall with humanity, and crews of such ships were notoriously cruel to the passengers, whom they regarded as cattle. The ship actually entered U.S. waters and was taken into custody near Long Island, New York, but was ordered towed to Connecticut rather than New York, probably because slavery was still legal in Connecticut in 1839. The fact that slavery in the U.S. was not a clear-cut North/South issue, and that slavery still existed in the northern U.S. at the time of the Amistad incident, is completely ignored by the film.
The actual chain of events that decided the fate of the Amistad Africans was far more complex than that depicted in the film, and took a great deal more time to unfold. U.S. President Martin Van Buren is portrayed as trying to manipulate the court proceedings against the Africans, to avoid angering Spain, which claimed the Africans as its property. In the film, Van Buren replaces the presiding judge in the original case with a younger man thought to be more sympathetic to the State Department’s case. This is pure fiction, as is the character of Judge Coughlin, who is chosen as Van Buren’s hand-picked replacement. The participation of the President and the State Department in the actual case was much more involved and sinister. In 1840, in advance of the presidential election, Van Buren and his Secretary of State, John Forsyth, planned to have Cinque and the rest of the Amistad Africans transferred to the U.S.S. Grampus, a U.S. Navy vessel waiting in New Haven harbor, to be returned to slavery in Cuba following the ruling of the district court, regardless of the outcome, before an appeal could be filed. The court ultimately ruled that the Africans had not been legally enslaved, and placed them in Van Buren’s custody, to be returned as free people to Africa. Van Buren ordered the U.S. District Attorney to appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court, which heard the appeal in New Haven in April of 1840.
The compression of the timeline in the film makes it appear that Martin Van Buren was President for the entire time the Amistad case was making its way through the courts. In reality, Van Buren lost his bid for re-election in 1840, and by the time Cinque and company were returned to Africa in 1842, William Henry Harrison had been inaugurated and died, and John Tyler was President. This distortion aside, Nigel Hawthorne’s portrayal of Van Buren in the film is generally accurate. Hawthorne plays Van Buren as a pure politician, concerned with re-election above all else, a portrayal which reflects the real man.
The other major characters in the film are represented with varying degrees of accuracy, with the exception of Theodore Joadson, played by Morgan Freeman, who is an entirely fictional character. Abolitionist publisher Lewis Tappan, played by Stellan Skarsgard, was far more instrumental in formulating strategy and winning the freedom of the Amistad Africans than is portrayed in the film It was also Tappan who was primarily responsible for raising the money to send the Africans home following the case. Roger Baldwin, played by Matthew McConaughey, was a firm abolitionist from the start of the case, not the ambulance-chasing property lawyer depicted in the first half of the film. Baldwin’s character arc, from a pragmatist interested in winning, indifferent to the moral implications of the case, to a devoted advocate for Cinque and his people, is dramatic, but pure fiction.
John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins, was involved in planning the defense of Cinque and his shipmates during the initial trial in district court, sending letters to Tappan and Baldwin, asking questions and making suggestions. His participation in the case was not reluctant, as depicted in the film, but enthusiastic. Adams relished the opportunity to argue for abolition of slavery, and to attack the Van Buren administration, of which he was a vociferous critic. When Adams learned of the administration’s tampering with the case, including falsifying of documents, as well as the plan to return the Africans to Cuba aboard the Grampus, he brought the matter before his colleagues in the House of Representatives and moved unsuccessfully to censure Van Buren.
Cinque’s role was expanded beyond the historical account for dramatic purposes. Portrayed in the film by Djimon Hounsou, he was the leader of the revolt, and the primary representative of the Africans in the trials, but he never visited the home of John Quincy Adams, nor is there any evidence he helped to shape the defense strategy, as depicted in the film. The film portrays Cinque as being in attendance during the Supreme Court hearings; Adams even points him out and makes him a crucial point in his argument; in reality, Cinque remained in Connecticut.
There are other distortions in the film that result from the compression or rearrangement of the timeline. Following the Supreme Court decision, it was another eight months before Cinque and his shipmates were returned to Africa. In the film’s epilogue, it depicts the destruction of the Lomboko slave fortress in Sierra Leone by the British Navy. Though it is suggested that this occurred shortly after the resolution of the Amistad case, the destruction of Lomboko actually took place in 1849, seven years after the Amistad passengers had been returned to Africa. Expository titles inform us that Cinque returned to his home to find his village destroyed and his family kidnapped and sold into slavery, but his ultimate fate is omitted. Cinque remained in Africa, and though details of his life in the years that followed are unknown, he returned in 1879 to the mission established by Christians who sailed to Africa with the returning Amistad passengers in 1842, to die and receive a Christian burial.
Many of the themes examined in the film are laudable, and relevant to modern society. Racism in the United States in the 19th century is examined and shown to be a major influence in the politics of the time. When Senator John C. Calhoun threatens President Van Buren with the possibility of civil war should the Amistad Africans be freed, he argues that to free those men and women would undermine the entire institution of slavery, an institution on which the South depends for its economic survival. When John Quincy Adams argues before the Supreme Court, he references Cinque’s race, claiming that if he had been a white man fighting for his life and freedom, he would be a hero, his name known throughout the country, as famous as Patrick Henry. This idea, that race affects perception, is alive and well today. There are still those in America who regard people—political candidates, athletes, other public figures—with suspicion based solely on race.
Spielberg’s decision to depart from history for the sake of telling the story he wanted is understandable. This sort of thing is done in filmmaking all the time. Amistad is a dramatic film, a work of fiction inspired by actual events, but by no means a source of accurate information about those events. If one wants to discover the true story of the Amistad revolt, books like Mutiny on the Amistad by Howard Jones are much more reliable.
What is disappointing is not that the film fails as history, but that it largely fails as drama. Spielberg is prone to overt sentimentality, but he had proven himself capable of seriously telling a compelling story with Schindler’s List prior to making this film, and would prove himself again, though to a lesser extent, a few years later with Saving Private Ryan. With those two films, particularly Schindler, Spielberg avoided the sentimentality and schmaltz that are often hallmarks of his work; in Amistad, he slathers on the sentiment with a trowel. The film is told not with the stern detachment of Schindler’s List, but with melodramatic close-ups, swelling music and stirring speeches. That the film does not fail entirely is a testament to the performers, all of whom are excellent in their roles, and the directorial vigor Spielberg is able to exhibit in a few scenes, notably the bloody opening aboard the Amistad, and the flashbacks detailing the brutality of conditions aboard the Amistad and the Tecora. A greater concern for historical accuracy might have helped, but what the film really needed was a screenplay that treated the story with seriousness rather than as a maudlin tale of inspiration, and a show of restraint on the part of its director.