Film Review: 'Amistad', an unromantic vision of the slave trade

A few weeks ago I was cuddled up on the couch with my other half, who made the fundamental mistake of allowing a history student to be in charge of the movie selection. A fellow historian had recently recommended Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad, and I jumped at the chance to watch it when it came on.

This historical drama is based on the 1839 mutiny on the Spanish transatlantic slave ship La Amistad. Starring Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey and Morgan Freeman, the film follows the African captives upon the slave ship and their legal battle within the American court system. During the on-board mutiny the captives murdered many of the crew, but spared their Spanish navigators in the hope that they could return home; but instead of reaching Africa, they were tricked by their navigators who had in fact taken them north, where they were shortly captured not far from Long Island by the USS Washington. Having arrived in the United States, they were arrested, unable to speak English, and facing a lifetime of slavery. However, with the aid of an abolitionist lawyer, the captives begin their legal battle to establish themselves as freemen (and freewomen) and return to Africa.

Through the clever use of flashbacks, Spielberg illustrates the horrors of the ‘Middle Passage’ and the harrowing conditions that were all too common within the transatlantic slave trade. The film pulls no punches in displaying the cruelty suffered by the millions of African men, women, and children who were sold into slavery. It makes no attempt to be glamorous but instead portrays the grim realities of human trafficking and bondage, including starvation, whippings, and death. The film builds up to the captives’ appearance in front of the Supreme Court in the case of United States v. The Amistad (1841), and includes a particularly stirring speech by former President, and pro-abolitionist, John Quincy Adams.

Throughout the film the Africans’ case is contextualised by the growing tensions within the United States: not only the debate surrounding slavery, but also party politics, presidential election campaigns, and the looming threat of civil war. The film also represents the existing tensions of the time between the United States and the European powers of Great Britain and Spain. With the British abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, Spanish slave smugglers had become a lot more common, and both of these nations had great interest in the outcome of this case. The film explores their relationships with the United States during this period, particularly with its portrayal of Spanish-United States diplomatic relations under Queen Isabella II.

This film is excellent for anyone interested in African history, American history, or the history of the transatlantic slave trade. As I am currently writing my dissertation on slavery within the West Indies I found it particularly fascinating. However, perhaps it is not the best contender for date night… although we both enjoyed the film it did take some of the romance out of the evening!