As producer Debbie Allen notes, "The name La Amistad
means friendship, which is such an ironic name for a ship with a
cargo of people who have been stolen from their homes. But the
name is also significant because of the abolitionists and the
missionaries and the other American people who worked so hard to
help the Amistad Africans gain their freedom. So friendship has
an interesting place throughout this movie."
A FORGOTTEN PAST
Steven Spielberg’s film began its journey to the screen over
13 years ago. In 1984, producer Debbie Allen came across two
volumes of essays and articles, titled Amistad I and II, written
by African-American writers, historians and philosophers. She
recalls, "I didn't understand the significance of the name
until I opened to the preface. On one page it told the whole
She couldn't imagine why she had never even heard of the
landmark incident, or of the courage and determination of the
leader of the rebellion, Sengbe Pieh, whom the Spaniards called
"Cinque." "I was filled with many different
emotions. I felt empowered and excited that this had actually
happened, yet I also felt robbed and cheated that I had never
been taught about this in school. I knew it was a true story-a
pivotal moment in time-that should be told to the world."
(How many such great
stories, important to Australia’s sense of self and to its
understanding of its own history, could our own filmmakers find?)
Allen set out on a personal quest to bring the story of the
Amistad to the big screen. In 1984, she optioned the rights to
Black Mutiny, an historical account of the incident written by
William Owen. For more than a decade, she researched and
developed the project, but was met with little interest from the
filmmaking community. Many producers – from Australian to
Zanzibar - will recognise a film producer’s stock in trade -
passion - in Allen’s story.
"What kept me going was belief," Allen attests.
"I believed in the power and the truth of this story. I
believed that the enormous tapestry upon which it occurred
related to all our ancestors-the Africans, the abolitionists, the
pro-slavers, the Spanish, the Cubans, the British . . . It tells
us all a lot about our history."
Nearly a decade passed, and while Allen found success with
other projects, "Amistad" seemed stonewalled. After
seeing Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," however,
her hopes were renewed. "I realized that here was a
filmmaker who could understand and embrace this project and help
me get it done."
"I was struck by
some of the images of the Africans that were etched by a
She met first with co-heads of DreamWorks Pictures Walter
Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who wasted no time in setting up a
meeting for her with Spielberg. "Steven wanted to know
everything about the story. He was just insatiable," Allen
relates. "We had a fantastic, emotional conversation that
went on for about an hour and a half, and I knew we were going to
make this movie. After all those years, it happened so
Spielberg acknowledges that he had only a passing knowledge of
the Amistad prior to his meeting with Allen. However, as he
notes, "I was inspired by her passion for the story. She had
a remarkable ability to make me see it through her eyes."
Sifting through the visual material Allen had collected
through the years, Spielberg felt he could also see it through
the eyes of those who had lived the story. "I was struck by
some of the images of the Africans that were etched by a court
artist," he asserts. "You never saw their faces, just
their silhouetted profiles. Yet I could look at those profiles
and feel who these people were - just based on the side angles of
each of the faces."
interesting thing to remember about Cinque is that he was not
a slave and had never been a slave." David Franzoni, scriptwriter
Not long after Spielberg signed on, Colin Wilson came aboard
as a producer. "Amistad" now had a director and
producers, but no script. To shape the multi-faceted story into a
dramatic screenplay, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald turned to
screenwriter David Franzoni, who had previously penned the
acclaimed HBO telefilm "Citizen Cohn."
From his first meeting with the filmmakers, Franzoni remembers
"the chemistry was perfect. We agreed it was vital to
establish the drama from the perspective of the Africans,
specifically from the point of view of their leader, Sengbe,
named Cinque by the Spanish," Franzoni continues. "The
most interesting thing to remember about Cinque is that he was
not a slave and had never been a slave. He was a free man who
suddenly found himself in chains. But he doesn't bend, he doesn't
equivocateÉand because he has that kind of power, that
absolutely unswerving drive, he becomes-even while in prison-the
freest man on earth."
CASTING FOR HISTORY
When casting on Amistad began, the first person to whom Steven
Spielberg showed the script was three-time Academy
Award-nominated actor Morgan Freeman. "Morgan was on my wish
list of actors I'd always wanted to work with, and he was the
first actor I went to," Spielberg says.
"Really good scripts that excite you on the first reading
are hard to come by," Freeman remarks. "This is a story
that is so important to the American fabric, and most people have
never heard of it. When you have stories of this nature-which
both entertain and instruct-it becomes both a gift and an
obligation to take part in telling it."
Freeman stars as the abolitionist Theodore Joadson who, along
with fellow abolitionist Lewis Tappan (played by Stellan
Skarsgård), is among the first to come to the aid of the Amistad
Africans. "When the story of the Amistad breaks, they jump
right in the middle of it. The newspapers call the incident a
'massacre at sea,' but Joadson and Tappan call the Africans
nickname in the story is 'Dung Scraper.' He's a property
lawyer, but he knows this case." - McConaughey
Actually, Joadson is one of the few principal characters in
the film who is fictionalized. Allen explains, "Joadson is
the embodiment of the African-American abolitionist movement of
the day. He's a former slave who has become educated and is
struggling to abolish slavery. Morgan's character allows us to
see how black people were at the core of those movements. His
character is a composite of such historic figures as James
Forten, David Walker, James Pennington and Henry Highland
Joadson and Tappan try to enlist a good attorney to defend the
Africans. But, as Skarsgård notes, "we end up at the bottom
of the list with a shady lawyer named Baldwin."
"This was not a
human rights issue; this was a property issue." Spielberg
Cast as lawyer Roger Baldwin, Matthew McConaughey reveals,
"Baldwin's nickname in the story is 'Dung Scraper.' He's a
property lawyer, but he knows this case."
Spielberg elaborates, "This case had great relevance to
Baldwin because the Africans were considered property. He was
trying desperately, however, to prove the Africans were not, in
fact, legally slaves-born on a plantation to parents who were
slaves-because they were from Africa and were illegally kidnapped
from their homes. This was not a human rights issue; this was a
Through his dealings with the Africans, and particularly with
Cinque, McConaughey's character does undergo a transformation.
"In the beginning, Baldwin looks at the Africans as property
and is not sensitive to the 'cause' whatsoever," McConaughey
observes. "That's where his journey comes in. Throughout the
story, he becomes more humane as he begins to understand the
importance of what he's doing. He no longer sees it as a property
case; he sees the humanity of the issue."
Despite Baldwin's valiant efforts, it appeared that justice
would not prevail. Fearing the wrath of the South, incumbent
President Martin Van Buren overturned the lower court's decision,
which was in favor of the Africans. The ensuing case went all the
way to the U.S. Supreme Court, earning the moniker "The
Trial of the Presidents." Spielberg clarifies,
"President Martin Van Buren, who was up for reelection, was
pulling the strings behind the scenes. At the same time, the
attorney working on behalf of the Africans in the Supreme Court
case was former President John Quincy Adams, the son of one of
our nation's founding fathers, John Adams."
In an interesting piece of casting, both American Presidents
in Amistad are portrayed by distinguished British actors: Academy
Award nominee Nigel Hawthorne plays Martin Van Buren, while
Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins is John Quincy Adams.
"Anthony brought the
same august tenor to the speech that Adams must have
had," - Spielberg
"It was a tremendous honor to be asked to play this part;
I think it is one of the greatest parts I've ever played,"
Hopkins avows. "Adams was a one-term President. He was an
astute puritan and totally incorruptible, which didn't make him a
very popular politician. Neither an abolitionist, nor
pro-slavery, he initially wanted nothing to do with the Amistad
case. But gradually, he was compelled to go and fight for these
people's lives. He was a very moral man."
Adams had earned the name "Old Man Eloquent" for his
great oratory skills, which are demonstrated in the film by his
final impassioned argument before the Supreme Court. Franzoni
comments, "John Quincy Adams watched his father help create
this nation, and he fought to his last days to fulfill this
country's promise of universal freedom. He was 74 when he made
the speech in the Supreme Court. It's as if he had been waiting
for Cinque all those years."
"Anthony brought the same august tenor to the speech that
Adams must have had," Spielberg adds. "He put in the
kind of performance that, for me-as the director-just listening
to it made me feel like I was actually there . . . back in
Despite assembling an outstanding international cast, the
filmmakers knew that it was integral to the success of the film
to find the right actor to portray Cinque, the 25-year-old
African rice farmer who led his countrymen to rebel against their
Spielberg recalls, "I was not prepared to make the movie
without a Cinque who would be utterly believable. We were very
fortunate that in the middle of the casting process, we came
across Djimon Hounsou. Without that piece of casting, I couldn't
have gone forward with the production at the time."
A native of West Africa, Hounsou's only previous film acting
experience had been in small roles. Nevertheless, director Vickie
Thomas was so impressed with his first reading that she
immediately forwarded his videotaped audition to Spielberg.
"I had to make it
believable for myself" - Hounsou
"His videotape was so overwhelming that I brought him in
that afternoon," the director states. "He was Cinque.
He was courageous, he was sympathetic, he was angry, he had
dignity, so many things combined. Djimon has an inner peace and
an outer strength that made him perfect for the role."
Debbie Allen echoes Spielberg's reaction. "You don't want a
hero who is just a hero. Djimon had this wonderful quality of
power, yet vulnerability, that was so right for this
Reflecting on his role, Hounsou notes, "Cinque refuses to
be taken as a slave. He will go to any length to free himself so
he can get back to his country - to his wife and children. There
is no experience in my life that I could draw on to play this
part. I had never been chained or put in prison and treated like
an animal. I had to make it believable for myself that I was
actually being treated like that, so people could look at me and
understand and feel the pain that Cinque must have endured."
JUDGE FOR JUDGE
In a casting coup, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A.
Blackmun makes a cameo appearance in the role of Joseph Story,
the Supreme Court Justice who delivered the court's final
groundbreaking decision. Remarkably, while on the bench, Justice
Blackmun occupied the seat that had been Justice Story's in the
Spielberg was honored to have the Justice's participation in
the film. "Justice Story had written a brilliant decision,
and we extracted a piece of it for the scene. Justice Blackmun
delivered it just as he would in the Supreme Court today and, I
imagine, just how the actual Justice Story rendered the decision
LA AMISTAD SAILS AGAIN
To achieve the scenes aboard the Amistad, the production used two
different historic schooners: Maryland's state ship, The Pride of
Baltimore II, on the East Coast; and California's state ship, The
Californian, off the coast of Los Angeles. Both ships were
painted and dressed to resemble the Amistad in various states of
Some of the film's most difficult scenes were accomplished
during a week of filming at sea. Under the guidance of marine
coordinator Harry Julian, the production company relocated to a
"floating" city just over a mile off the coast of San
Pedro. Julian describes the flotilla: "We had a 200' by 60'
barge that could accommodate 40-ton rigs, 50-ton cranes, and all
the other facilities. There were passenger boats to move people
back and forth to shore, camera boats, chase boats to move people
from ship to ship, and tug boats to tow the barge itself."
"Combined with the
massive wave-generating dump tanks, and rain and lightning
effects, it was a convincing recreation"
For five rigorous days of filming, the cast and crew braved
swells that never seemed to end, but even back on solid ground
they had more swaying to endure. The actual mutiny scenes were
filmed on a ship deck built on a Van Nuys soundstage. The special
effects team constructed the set of the ship on a gimble, a
series of hydraulically-powered lifts that simulated the
appropriate rocking motion. Combined with the massive
wave-generating dump tanks, and rain and lightning effects, it
was a convincing recreation of the storm-swept night when Cinque
and his countrymen broke free of their chains and took back their