Amistad (1997 film)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Debbie Allen
Steven Spielberg
Colin Wilson
Written by David Franzoni
Starring Morgan Freeman
Anthony Hopkins
Djimon Hounsou
Matthew McConaughey
Nigel Hawthorne
Stellan Skarsgård
Harry Blackmun
Anna Paquin
Music by John Williams
Cinematography Janusz Kamiński
Editing by Michael Kahn
Studio HBO Films
Distributed by DreamWorks Pictures
Release date(s)
Running time 154 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $36 million
Box office $44,229,441

Amistad is a 1997 historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg based on the notable mutiny in 1839 by newly captured Mende slaves who took control of the ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. It became a United States Supreme Court case of 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.


The film begins in the depths of the schooner La Amistad, a ship carrying Africans captured from Sierra Leone and sold in Cuba into slavery. The film's protagonist, Sengbe Pieh (Djimon Hounsou), most known by his slave name, "Cinqué" (meaning "fifth"), picks the lock on his shackles. Freeing a number of his companions, Cinquè initiates a rebellion on the ship. In the ensuing fighting, several Mende and most of the ship's crew are killed, except the owners Ruiz and Montez, who the Africans believe can navigate for them to return to West Africa.

After six weeks have passed, the ship is running out of food and fresh water; there is dissension among the Africans. The next day, they sight land. Unsure of their location, a group take a boat to shore to fetch fresh water. La Amistad is found by a United States military vessel; the Spaniards tricked the Africans by sailing up the Atlantic coast. Captured by the Americans off Long Island, the ship and Amistad Mende are taken to New Haven, Connecticut. The Africans are imprisoned while awaiting the court trial to determine property ownership of the vessel and the Mende as slaves, or whether the people will be recognized as free. At this time, Great Britain, the United States and Spain had all prohibited the international slave trade. The Spanish owners claimed the slaves were born on a Cuban plantation and thus legal as domestic slaves.

The film shifts to Washington, D.C., introducing the elderly John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), former President and sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts. Adams meets two of the country's leading abolitionists: the freed slave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and activist Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård), both of whom are leading shipping magnates in New England and co-proprietors of the abolitionist newssheet The Emancipator. Having learned of the Amistad Africans and intent on gaining their freedom, the men seek Adams' help for the court case. Adams refuses to help, claiming he neither condemns nor condones slavery.

The current President of the United States, Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), is under pressure by the Spanish Queen Isabella II (Anna Paquin), who is demanding compensation for the ship and the market value of the slaves.

At a preliminary hearing in a federal district court in New Haven, the Africans are charged with "insurrection on the high seas." The case has complicated conflicting claims of property ownership by Spain, the United States, the Spanish owners of the slaves and of La Amistad, and the American captain and first mate of the US revenue cutter that took the ship into custody, as laws of the sea entitled them to salvage rights to the property (theoretically including the slaves). The two abolitionists enlist the help of a young attorney specializing in property law: Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey).

At the jail, Baldwin and the abolitionists, along with Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr. (Austin Pendleton), a professor of linguistics, try to talk with the Amistad Africans, but neither side is able to understand anything of the other. In the prison, the Africans become divided among different factions. After one dies, they demonstrate against their imprisonment.

As the hearings drag on, Baldwin and Joadson approach Adams for advice. Adams advises them that, in court, the side with the best story usually wins. He asks them what their story is. Unable to answer, they realize it's imperative to communicate with the Africans. At the city docks, they find a black sailor in the Royal Navy, James Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who speaks an African language. They have also been trying to teach English to Cinquè and others.

Using Covey as a translator, Baldwin and his companions are able to talk to Cinquè. He is allowed to give his account, through Covey, in the courtroom. Cinquè tells the story of how he became a slave, which the film conveys by flashbacks. He was a farmer and family man, kidnapped by African slave-hunters and taken to the fortress of Lomboko, an illegal slave facility in the British protectorate of Sierra Leone. He and hundreds of other captured Africans were loaded onto the transatlantic slave-ship (Tecora). Cinquè tells of the various horrors of the Middle Passage. Upon their arrival in Cuba, Cinquè was sold at a slave market and purchased, along with many other Tecora survivors, by the owners of La Amistad. Once aboard La Amistad, Cinquè freed himself and other Africans, and began their mutiny for freedom.

The District Attorney William S. Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite) and Secretary of State John Forsyth (David Paymer) press their case for respecting property rights of owners and dismiss Cinquè's story as fiction. While exploring the impounded vessel La Amistad for evidence, Baldwin happens upon a notebook, stuffed into a crevice by Ruiz and Montez, which gives accounts of their illegal slave-trading.

With the notebook as evidence, Baldwin calls expert witnesses, including Captain Fitzgerald (Peter Firth), a British naval officer assigned to patrol the West African coastline to enforce the British Empire's anti-slavery policies. As tension in the courtroom rises, and Cinquè rises and cries, "Give us free" over and over, using the English he has learned. In a district court ruling, Judge Coglin (Jeremy Northam) dismisses all claims of ownership of the Africans. He rules that the Africans were captured illegally and not born on Cuban plantations; orders the arrest of the Amistad's owners on charges of slave-trading; and authorizes the United States to convey the Amistad Africans back to Africa at the expense of the nation.

Cinquè, Joadson, Baldwin, and the Africans celebrate their victory. In Washington, political conflict threatens the ruling. Speaking to the Spanish Ambassador to Washington, Senator John C. Calhoun (Arliss Howard) from South Carolina attacks President Van Buren; stressing the economic importance of slaves in the South, Calhoun suggests that, if the government frees the Amistad Africans, the South will go to war. With his advisers' warning of the heightened sectional threat of civil war, President Van Buren orders that the case be submitted to the US Supreme Court on appeal. The Court is dominated by Southern slaveholder justices.

Tappan splits with Joadson and Baldwin, who break the news to Cinquè. Needing a knowledgeable ally, Baldwin and Joadson meet again with John Quincy Adams, who has been following the case carefully. Adams, aware that Cinquè refuses to talk to Baldwin, invites the African leader to his home. They walk in his greenhouse, where Cinquè is moved by seeing an African violet, native to his homeland. Adams decides to assist the case. During preparations, Cinquè tells Adams that he is invoking the spirits of his ancestors. Adams father, President John Adams, was one of America's founding fathers.

At the Supreme Court, John Quincy Adams gives a passionate speech in defense of the Africans. He argues that if Cinquè were white and had rebelled against the British, the United States would have exalted him as a hero; and that the Africans' mutiny to regain their freedom was no different to the Americans' rebellion against their oppressors in the Revolution. Arguing that condemning the Amistad Africans to slavery would render the principles and ideals of the Constitution worthless, he exhorts the judges to free the Africans. Adams invokes the spirits of America's founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence. He concludes by arguing that, if a verdict in the Africans' favor should hasten a civil war, it will be the final battle of the American Revolution.

Justice Joseph Story (featuring Associate Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in a cameo role) announces the Supreme Court's ruling: because the Amistad Africans were illegally kidnapped, United States laws on slave ownership do not apply. As free men, the Africans had the right to fight to escape their illegal confinement. The Supreme Court authorizes the release of the Africans and their transportation to Africa, if they so wish. Cinquè bids emotional farewells to his American companions; he shakes Adams' hand, gives Joadson his lion tooth (his only memento of Africa), and thanks Baldwin in English and in Mende.

The film's last scenes convey outcomes among major players: British Royal Marines assault the Lomboko Slave Fortress, killing the slavers and freeing Africans from its dungeons. With the fortress evacuated, Captain Fitzgerald orders it destroyed by the cannons on his ship. Other scenes show Martin Van Buren losing his re-election campaign, Isabella II learning of the Africans' release, and the later fall of Atlanta from the American Civil War. Cinquè and his fellow Africans return to Sierra Leone, dressed in white, the West African color of victory, and accompanied by James Covey. A postscript says that Cinquè returned to find his country in civil war and his wife and child missing, likely sold into slavery.


This was the second film for which Anthony Hopkins received an Academy Award nomination for playing a U.S. President, having previously been nominated in 1995 for playing Richard Nixon in Nixon.

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

Production history

David Sterritt wrote that Spielberg saw "great potential" in the Amistad story and decided to take it on, although he'd been criticized by the black community for his adaptation of The Color Purple (1985).

The idea of filming the Amistad affair came from actress and director Debbie Allen, who had run across some books on the subject. After running into fund-raising problems, she brought the project to Spielberg, who wanted to stretch his artistic wings after making The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and was looking for a prestige production to direct for DreamWorks SKG, the studio he'd recently co-founded. 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, its eleven Oscar® nominations (no wins) notwithstanding. "I got such a bollocking for The Color Purple," he told a New York Times interviewer, "I thought, I'll never do that again." But he saw great potential in the Amistad story and decided to take it on, even though his crowded schedule meant doing pre-production while DreamWorks was still being launched and post-production while 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998) was before the camera.[1]


Soundtrack album by John Williams
Released December 9, 1997
Recorded 1997
Genre Score
Length 55:51
Label DreamWorks Records
John Williams chronology

Seven Years in Tibet
Saving Private Ryan
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 4/5 stars
Filmtracks 4/5 stars
Movie Wave 3/5 stars

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The lyrics from "Dry Your Tears, Afrika" (including the reprise) 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

The Supreme Court decision reversed District and Circuit decrees regarding 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.[2]

Many academics, like 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 that:

The film version of Adams' closing speech before the Supreme Court and the court's decision bear no resemblance to the much longer historical versions; they are not even fair summaries.[4][5]

Several inaccuracies occur during the film's final scenes:

  • During the scene depicting the destruction of the Lomboko 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.[6]


Critical response

Amistad received mainly positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 76% based on reviews from 59 critics, with an average score of 6.9/10.[7] 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."[8] Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars, writing:

"Amistad," like Spielberg's "Schindler's List," is [...] about the ways good men try to work realistically within an evil system to spare a few of its victims. [...] "Schindler's List" works better as narrative because it is about a risky deception, while "Amistad" is about the search for a truth that, if found, will be small consolation to the millions of existing slaves. As a result, the movie doesn't have the emotional charge of Spielberg's earlier film — or of "The Color Purple," which moved me to tears. [...] What is most valuable about "Amistad" is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims.[9]

Box office

The film earned $44,229,441 at the box office in the United States, debuting at No. 5 on December 10, 1997.[10]


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]

See also

Film portal


External links

  • Internet Movie Database
  • AllRovi
  • Box Office Mojo
  • Rotten Tomatoes
  • 2 speeches from the movie in text, audio, video from American Rhetoric
  • at Virtual History
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