Free the Amistad 44; Free Steven Spielberg

Each year, the National Archives Foundation gives a Records of Achievement Award to a person who, as the Washington Post explains it, has “given the public a reason to think about American history”.  This year the award is being given to director Steven Spielberg.

To further honor Mr. Spielberg and to provide publicity for his award, the National Archives is sponsoring a Steven Spielberg Festival, showing four of his films free of charge to the public.  Three of the selected films deal with historical events – “Saving Private Ryan”, “Lincoln” and “Amistad”.  The fourth is “E.T.” (why it was selected, no one seems to know).

Last night, we went to see Amistad.  It sure makes you happy to live in Washington where so many institutions provide so many entertainment and educational opportunities, often for little or no cost.  And, when the providing institution is the National Archives, it is even easier.  Not only is there a Metro stop a block away but there is parking galore during the evening hours, when nothing else is going on on Constitution Avenue in front of the Archives building.

So much for “Free Steven Spielberg”.  How about “Amistad”?

We had not seen the film when it came out about 15 years ago, and I knew little about the revolt on the ship La Amistad.  I expected an adventure story, well filmed and well acted, with some historical background.  I knew that the film had been well received, but not universally acclaimed, but thought it was most likely a good choice for an otherwise quiet Saturday evening.

In fact, I thought Amistad was a fantastic, and moving, film.  I am not sure why it was not praised by all.  Well acted, beautifully filmed, it provided a historical lesson of value, adventure and suspense, and even all the elements of a legal thriller.  I can see the director of “Lincoln” in “Amistad” – there is something similar in the two films.

A quick synopsis:  In 1839, in violation of English and international law and treaties, a group of blacks were kidnapped from Sierra Leone by Portuguese slave traders and (after a harrowing trans-Atlantic trips where at least 50 of the captives were simply sworn overboard to conserve food and provisions) brought to Havana, where they were sold as slaves.  Forty four of these captives were bought by the captain of the Spanish ship La Amistad (Cuba being a Spanish colony) to deliver to a plantation far away in Cuba, but one of them loosens his chains, frees others, and they revolt, killing the captain.

They believe that they have convinced the remaining crew members to take them back to Africa, but in fact the ship is boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard off the coast of Long Island, and the blacks jailed in New Haven.

The film follows the story until this point, and now switches to the trial, the key being the conclusion of volunteer lawyer Roger Baldwin (future Connecticut Senator and Governor) that these prisoners were never slaves, but were illegally seized in Africa, and that therefore they are not “property” and not subject to treaties between the United States and Spain on the disposition of property, as the government maintained that they were.  Politics (pressure from southern slave states) gets involved, and international relations. At the trial court level, the jury finds for the Africans. President Van Buren’s Secretary of State John Forsythe convinces the judge to recuse himself and dismisses the jury (not quite sure how this was done), and gets the case transferred to a different judge, deemed much more amenable to political pressure, who will hear the case without a jury.  But, surprise, the judge also finds for the defendants.

The government appeals, the case goes to the Supreme Court, former president John Quincy Adams is enlisted as co-council to Baldwin, and we watch the former president’s somewhat rambling argument to the court.  Of the 9 justices, 7 are from the South.  Nevertheless, the court upholds the decision of the trial court (and the Court of Appeals, left out of the film), and the defendants are freed, apparently able to stay in the United States or to return to Africa (which they do).

As in most films portraying historical events, history is not entirely followed.  It is doubtful that Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina warned President Van Buren of Civil War, the Supreme Court argument of John Quincy Adams bears little relationship to his real argument (I have seen the transcript of the court records), and of course the dialogue between the various participants is pure construct for the most part.  But in this case, it didn’t bother me, because the gist of the story is preserved and the details do not matter in that they have no serious historical repercussions.

I learned about the Amistad.  I saw how, in spite of political pressures, the American judicial system retained its independence from the executive branch.  I saw how justice may have been achieved, but at the cost of a lot of time, suffering and unnecessary human activity – nothing much has changed here, I guess. And I saw a great film.



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