Amistad is a 1997 American historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the true story of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad, during which Mende tribesmen abducted for the slave trade managed to gain control of their captors' ship off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. The case was ultimately resolved by the United States Supreme Court in 1841.

Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, and Matthew McConaughey had starring roles. David Franzoni's screenplay was based on the book Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (1987), by the historian Howard Jones.


Amistad is the name of a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the United States in 1839. It is carrying African people as its cargo. As the ship is crossing from Cuba to the United States, Cinqué, a leader of the Africans, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship. The mutineers spare the lives of two Spanish navigators to help them sail the ship back to Africa. Instead, the navigators play out the Africans and sail north to the east coast of the United States, where the ship is stopped by the American Navy, and the 53 living Africans imprisoned as runaway slaves.

In an unfamiliar country and not speaking a single word of English, the Africans find themselves in a legal battle. District Attorney William S. Holabird brings charges of piracy and murder. The Secretary of State John Forsyth, on behalf of President Martin Van Buren (who is campaigning for re-election), represents the claim of Queen Isabella II of Spain that the Africans are slaves and are property of Spain based on a treaty. Two Naval officers claim them as salvage while the two Spanish navigators produce proof of purchase. A lawyer named Roger Sherman Baldwin, hired by the abolitionist Tappan and his black associate Joadson (a fictional character[1]) decides to defend the Africans.

Baldwin argues that the Africans had been captured in Africa to be sold in the Americas illegally. Baldwin proves through documents found hidden on Amistad that the African people were initially cargo belonging to a Portuguese slave ship, The Tecora. Therefore, the Africans were free citizens of another country and not slaves at all. In light of this evidence, the staff of President Van Buren has the judge presiding over the case replaced by Judge Coglin, who is younger and believed to be impressionable and easily influenced. Consequently, seeking to make the case more personal, on the advice of former American president (and lawyer) John Quincy Adams, Baldwin and Joadson find James Covey, a former slave who speaks both Mende and English. Cinque tells his story at trial.

District Attorney Holabird attacks Cinqué’s “tale” of being captured and kept in a Lomboko slave fortress and especially questions the throwing of precious cargo overboard. However, the Royal Navy's fervent abolitionist Captain Fitzgerald of the West Africa Squadron backs up Cinqué’s account. Baldwin shows from The Tecora's inventory that the number of African people taken as slaves was reduced by 50. Fitzgerald explains that some slave ships when interdicted do this to get rid of the evidence for their crime. But in The Tecora's case, they had underestimated the amount of provisions necessary for their journey. As the tension rises, Cinqué stands up from his seat and repeatedly cries, "Give us, us free!"

Judge Coglin rules in favor of the Africans. After pressure from Senator Calhoun on President Van Buren, the case is appealed to the Supreme Court. Despite refusing to help when the case was initially presented, Adams agrees to assist with the case. At the Supreme Court, he makes an impassioned and eloquent plea for their release, and is successful.

The Lomboko slave fortress is liberated by the Royal Marines under the command of Captain Fitzgerald. After all the slaves were hurried out of the fortress, Fitzgerald orders the ship's cannon to destroy it. He then dictates a letter to Forsyth saying that he was right—the slave fortress doesn't exist.

Because of the release of the Africans, Van Buren loses his re-election campaign, and tension builds between the North and the South, which would eventually culminate in the Civil War.


Template:Div col

Template:Div col end

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun also appears in the film as Justice Joseph Story.


Template:Unreferenced section Actress and director Debbie Allen had run across some books about the mutiny on La Amistad and brought the subject to HBO films, which chose to make a film adaptation of the subject. She later presented the project to DreamWorks SKG to release the film, which agreed. Steven Spielberg, who wanted to stretch his artistic wings after making The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), was interested in directing it for DreamWorks, which he also co-founded, as well. Spielberg was an unlikely person to tackle the Amistad story since his previous picture about black characters, The Color Purple, had been badly received by the black community.

Filming of the exterior and interior court scenes took place at the Old Colony House in Newport, RI, and then moved to Sonalyst Studios. The opening scene was filmed on a sound stage in Universal Studios. Production then went to Puerto Rico for the scenes set in Africa, including those with the slave fortress.

Post-production was done rarely with Spielberg, due to his commitment to another DreamWorks film, Saving Private Ryan.


Template:Infobox album Template:Album ratings

The musical score for Amistad was composed by John Williams. A soundtrack album was released on December 9, 1997 by DreamWorks Records.[2] The lyrics from "Dry Your Tears, Afrika" are from a 1967 poem by French-speaking Ivorian poet Bernard Binlin Dadié. The words are primarily in Mende, one of Sierra Leone's major languages.


Historical accuracy

Many academics, including Columbia University professor Eric Foner, have criticized Amistad for historical inaccuracy and the misleading characterizations of the Amistad case as a "turning point" in the American perspective on slavery. [3] Foner wrote: Template:Cquote Template:Cquote

Other reported inaccuracies include the following:

  • Despite what the film suggests, the actual Supreme Court decision reversed District and Circuit decrees regarding the Africans' conveyance back to Africa; they were to be deemed free, but the U.S. government could not take them back to Africa, as they had arrived on American soil as free people.[4]
  • The film version of Adams' closing speech before the Supreme Court and the court's decision as read by Justice Joseph Story bear no resemblance to the much longer historical versions; they are not even fair summaries.[5][6]
  • During the scene depicting the destruction of the Lomboko slave fortress by a Royal Navy schooner, the vessel's captain refers to another officer as "ensign". This rank has never been used by the Royal Navy.[7]


Critical response

Amistad received mainly positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film receives an approval rating of 75% based on reviews from 61 critics, with an average score of 6.9/10. its consensus reads: "Heartfelt without resorting to preachiness, Amistad tells an important story with engaging sensitivity and absorbing skill."[8]

Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today summed up the feelings of many reviewers when she wrote: "as Spielberg vehicles go, Amistad — part mystery, action thriller, courtroom drama, even culture-clash comedy — lands between the disturbing lyricism of Schindler's List and the storybook artificiality of The Color Purple."[9] Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars, writing: Template:Blockquote

Box office

The film earned $44,229,441 at the box office in the United States, debuting at Template:Abbr 5 on December 10, 1997.[10]

Awards and honors

Amistad was nominated for Academy Awards in four categories: Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Original Dramatic Score (John Williams), Best Cinematography (Janusz Kamiński), and Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter).[11]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Award Best Cinematography Janusz Kamiński Template:Nom
Best Costume Design Ruth E. Carter Template:Nom
Best Original Dramatic Score John Williams Template:Nom
Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Template:Nom
American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases Janusz Kamiński Template:Nom
Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design for a Feature Film Rick Carter Template:Small,
Tony Fanning, Christopher Burian-Mohr, William James Teegarden Template:Small
Lauren Polizzi, John Berger, Paul Sonski Template:Small
Nicholas Lundy, Hugh Landwehr Template:Small
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Template:Nom
Most Promising Actor Djimon Hounsou Template:Nom
Critics' Choice Movie Award Best Film Template:Nom
Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Template:Won
David di Donatello Best Foreign Film Steven Spielberg Template:Nom
Directors Guild of America Award Outstanding Directing – Feature Film Template:Nom
European Film Awards Achievement in World Cinema
Stellan Skarsgård Template:Won
Golden Globe Award Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Djimon Hounsou Template:Nom
Best Director Steven Spielberg Template:Nom
Best Motion Picture – Drama Template:Nom
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Anthony Hopkins Template:Nom
Grammy Award Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television John Williams Template:Nom
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture Djimon Hounsou Template:Won
Outstanding Motion Picture Template:Nom
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture Morgan Freeman Template:Won
Online Film Critics Society Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Template:Nom
Producers Guild of America Award Best Theatrical Motion Picture Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson Template:Nom
Political Film Society Awards Exposé Template:Nom
Satellite Award Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Djimon Hounsou Template:Nom
Best Adapted Screenplay David Franzoni Template:Nom
Best Art Direction and Production Design Rick Carter Template:Nom
Best Cinematography Janusz Kamiński Template:Won
Best Costume Design Ruth E. Carter Template:Nom
Best Director Steven Spielberg Template:Nom
Best Editing Michael Kahn Template:Nom
Best Film – Drama Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson Template:Nom
Best Original Score John Williams Template:Nom
Screen Actors Guild Award Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role Anthony Hopkins Template:Nom
Southeastern Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actor Template:Nom

See also


  1. Elmer P. Martin and Joanne M. Martin. "Amistad Truths", Baltimore Sun, 30 December 1997. Retrieved on 13 July 2015. 
  2. Amistad Soundtrack (John Williams). Autotelics. Retrieved on December 20, 2015.
  3. Foner, Eric. "The Amistad Case in Fact and Film", History Matters. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  4. Story, Joseph. "The United States, Appellants, v. The Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, Her Tackle, Apparel, and Furniture, Together With Her Cargo, and the Africans Mentioned and Described in the Several Libels and Claims, Appellees", Supreme Court of the United States 40 U.S. 518; 10 L. Ed. 826 (January 1841 Term), Cornell University Law School. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  5. "The United States, Appellants, v. The Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad...".
  6. "JQA Adams Before the Supreme Court", History Central.
  7. British Royal Navy ranks (including relevant time period) "Officer Ranks in the Royal Navy", Royal Naval Museum. Accessed February 15, 2012.
  8. Amistad Movie Reviews, Pictures. Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved on 2011-02-15.
  9. Wloszczyna, Susan. "Amistad review", USA Today. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  10. Amistad. Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on 2011-12-08.
  11. Academy Awards: Amistad. Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on 2011-12-08.

External links


This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.