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(Amistad Roots)

Maata Epenisa
History 1700-026-Sp16
Professor: Ken Hansen

Amistad is the name of a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the U.S. in 1839. It is
carrying a cargo of Africans who have been sold into slavery in Cuba, taken on board, and
chained in the cargo hold of the ship. As the ship is crossing from Cuba to the U.S., Cinque, who
was a tribal leader in Africa, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship. They continue to sail, hoping
to find help when they land. Instead, when they reach the United States, they are imprisoned as
runaway slaves.
They don't speak a word of English, and it seems like they are doomed to die for
killing their captors when an abolitionist lawyer decides to take their case, arguing that they were
free citizens of another country and not slaves at all. The case finally gets to the Supreme Court,
where John Quincy Adams makes an impassioned and eloquent plea for their release
The film follows the events which occurred after the revolt by enslaved Africans
onboard the slave ship Amistad. It draws heavily upon the W.A. Owens book, Black Mutiny: The
Revolt on the Schooner Amistad. It describes the Africans capture, their enslavement, their
purchase, the overthrow of their captors and the subsequent trials in America, where they won
their freedom and eventual return to Africa. Featuring the notable actors, Morgan Freeman and
Anthony Hopkins, the film has gained a prominent place in the filmic representation of the
Atlantic slave trade.
The film succeeds on the basis of two core themes, suffering and survival. The way in
which these two are represented mark the film as unique. The opening scenes of the enslaved
Africans overrunning the Amistad, killing its crew and taking over sets the tone of the film, and
the audience is never allowed to forget the image of the muscular African screaming as he thrusts

his sword into one of his former captors. The enslaved Africans are not represented as
supplicants: they have fought for their freedom.
Based on the true story of America's slave trade, the film shows the saga of an 1839
mutiny aboard the slave ship, Amistad. Much of the story revolves a courtroom drama as lawyers
for the slaves seek their freedom and return home. The case is a watershed moment for AmericaSpain relations, and reveals the political machinations as it holds repercussions on the NorthSouth conflict eventually leading to America's Civil War.
These images are coupled with representations of the Middle Passage which are often
considered to be the most powerful aspect of the film. In the hold of the slave ship, the camera
pans across the chained bodies of the enslaved. Sickness, brutality, mutilation and death are
depicted in these scenes; blood is splattered across the deck of the ship as the visceral horrors of
enslavement are brought to attention. Suffering and survival are thereby expressed with the film's
evident attention to the human body. It is the human form which becomes the means by which
the suffering of enslavement is portrayed, the strength of the enslaved is celebrated and the
legality of enslavement debated.
It is this expression of the corporeal which marks the film as innovative and which has
won it so many accolades. The strong body, the body in pain and the body in law form a means
of comparison and contrast. The muscular body which strikes against those who have imprisoned
it is forcefully expressed. The suffering body on the slave ship serves as a graphic reminder of
the pain inflicted onto others. The courtroom arguments that center upon the ownership of the
'cargo' of the Amistad are resolved only when this 'cargo' is recognized as being human bodies.

This distinctive approach to the filmic representation of the Atlantic slave trade is also
evident in the portrayal of African culture and identity. Sengbe, the lead member of the enslaved
Africans, is shown as strong, knowledgeable and highly intelligent. Rather than turn the story of
the Amistad into a celebration of the kindness and generosity of white abolitionists, Sengbe is
shown to be the instigator and cause of the freedom which is eventually granted to the enslaved
The complexities and diversity of 'African' culture are also highlighted, with the tribal
divisions between those who were captured shown by differences between language, culture and
beliefs. This difference of culture is also drawn attention to with the problems of communication
between this group of Africans and American society.
This difficulty is shown to be felt most keenly by those who were former slaves, who
are now dislocated from their own African heritage. This struggle to comprehend one another can
be contrasted with the final victory in the Supreme Court as understanding is revealed as the key
by which injustice can be recognized. This message is not presented as too saccharine though,
despite the film's status as a major Hollywood film. With major academics assisting with the
project, including Henry Louis Gates, the film is well-filmed and well-researched. Its
distinctiveness however is marked by the choice to focus on the human body to tell the story of
the Amistad and through this the brutalities of the Atlantic slave trade.