What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this movie deals with issues of race, slavery, and the legal system.
What's the story?
In 1839, a group of Africans sold into slavery were being transported to the United States on a Spanish ship. Off the coast of Cuba, they escaped from their shackles and attacked the crew, leaving two crew members alive to take them back to Africa. The Spanish sailors tricked the Africans and sailed up the coast of the United States until an American naval ship off the coast of Connecticut captures them. Brought into court to determine their fate, the Africans were claimed as property ("like livestock") by both the Spanish crew and by the American captors. Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), a property lawyer, argues that it is not a property case at all, that since the Africans were not born slaves, they are free, and their actions were merely self-defense in aid of restoring their freedom.
Is it any good?
Adams explains that in court the one with the best story wins. Indeed, we hear many different stories in the course of AMISTAD as each character tries to explain why his view is the right one. In the first courtroom scene we hear several different "stories" about what should happen to the Africans. All of those stories assume that the Africans are property; the only question is whose property they are. Interestingly, as "property," they can not be charged with murder or theft. One cannot be both property and capable of forming criminal intent. The only issue before the court is where the Africans will go.
As Baldwin begins to tell Joadson and Tappan his "story" of the case, we see them slowly becoming aware of what had always been obvious to us. The Africans cannot be property. They were free, in which case their actions were not only honorable but heroic, in the same category as America's founding fathers, our own "story" about who we are as Americans. Despite the attempts of Van Buren to subvert the legal system established just decades before, the essential commitment to freedom is so much a part of the story that, at least in this one brief moment, justice triumphed. Adams, the fourth president, made that his story.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about why it was important to prove where the Africans were from. What was Calhoun's justification for slavery? Why does Tappan say that the death of the Africans may help the cause of abolition more than their freedom? Why does Spielberg organize his story this way, taking the audience from the confrontation to the courtroom and only later providing the background about the capture of the Africans? What does it mean that there is no Mende word for "should"?