Steven Spielberg is known for such blockbuster movies as E.T. and Jurassic Park. He has been most honored, however, for Schindler’s List, his retelling of the story of one man’s resistance to the Holocaust. The movie should be seen by all adults and has proven an important contribution to our continuing fight against anti-Semitism.
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 importance for us all.
The movie dramatizes the story of a group of Africans who rise up against their slave-trading captors on the ship “Amistad” and are as a result brought to trial in a New England court. But that is only one of the stories which 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 and start where the film opens. In 1839, 53 Africans threw off their chains on board a 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 the 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 anti-slavery 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 details (e.g. Morgan Freeman’s abolitionist character is fictitious; Adam’s speech is not the original words). But the power of this story to name our national sins is evident to all who have eyes to see.
While this historical story 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 powerfully affecting. The screenwriter and director know well the importance of making a story personal. They have President John Quincy Adams, when pressed by the Black abolitionist to take the case, ask “But what is their story, Mr. Joadson?” He realizes that 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. From this point on the abolitionist and young lawyer defending the Africans press Cinque to tell his story. And tell it he does. It is this “story within the story” that proves riveting. 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 these people (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, but at still other times kindly. And never has a more beautiful telling of the Gospel story been in film as when one of the Africans tells The Story to Cinque using only the illustrations from the Bible an abolitionist had given him. He cannot read the English words, but the pictures tell it all and bring hope. From the slaves in Egypt crying out to the God of Salvation, to the baby Jesus’ birth, to His teaching and healing, to the Cross and then the Resurrection, we hear the Good News in all its simplicity and power. Although the African storyteller is fearful that they will be killed, he can point to Christ rising into the heavens and believe that “where we’ll go if we die doesn’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, though it does do that movingly and convincingly. Instead, it also reveals human goodness even within evil systems, hope within horror. How is such hope possible? Partly, it rises up from out of the indomitable human spirit. At his trial, Cinque cries out for us all, “Give us, free!” But Spielberg hints at something more. There is also God’s Spirit at work in and through us.