A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Amistad is a 1997 Oscar-nominated Steven Spielberg movie about West Africans on a slave ship who revolt against their captors but still must fight for their freedom in the courtrooms of America. The opening scene, showing the slave revolt on board the Amistad, is very violent, with blood and death from swords, axes, and muskets. Later in the movie, the horrors of slavery are shown in graphic detail: Men and women are forced to suffer the grave indignities of being treated like cargo, and there's male and female nudity, flogging, and implied rape. Overall, this movie demonstrates tremendous leadership, integrity, fortitude, and courage in both the revolt and in the courtroom, where much of the movie takes place. These traits are shared by both the West Africans and those abolitionists and lawyers who defend them, including former President John Quincy Adams.
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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. But 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 captured 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 stories in the course of this gritty drama as each character tries to explain why his view is the right one. In the first courtroom scene we hear several "stories" about what should happen to the Africans. All 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, who gave us our own "story" about who we are as Americans. Despite the attempts of Van Buren to subvert the legal system established only 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.
Talk to your kids 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?
What did you learn from this film? How could you learn more about this historical time?
What are the challenges filmmakers face as they attempt to represent history?
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