In the darkness we can't, at first, tell what is going on. A flash of lightning. And we see human eyes. Another flash shows bloodied fingers working to loosen a nail. Suddenly we see chains. Chains on human wrists. Recognition.
Then comes the struggle. Weapons are snatched up. Black men break onto the rain-washed deck of a ship. The first quick chop digs deep into the neck of a crewman. Desperate fighting sweeps the ship. The captain stands with rifle and bayonet. Out of the darkness strides Cinqué, straight forward, with a saber. They fight.
The sword twists deep. Flashes of lightning show Cinqué standing over the fallen man, drenched by the rain, hollering from the depths of his soul.
The film Amistad opens hard with insurrectionary violence. It tears loose so suddenly, without hesitation or explanation, that our minds race to keep up.
The film sweeps us along. The desperate mutiny on the decks of the slaveship Amistad takes these 53 Africans to a strange and hostile land, the United States. A Coast Guard ship captures them off the coast of Long Island. They are thrown back into chains and must fight their way through the insane maze of U.S. courts. Outside their jail cells, the population and the authorities debate how to judge them.
And along the way, we arrive at moments from slavery-days that are still, today, only too familiar.
Shared Moments and Recognition
There is the moment when the Africans are being paraded, in chains, through a New England town on their way to the courthouse. When Cinqué--played brilliantly by Djimon Hounsou--says sharply, "Baukei, keep your head up!"
Yes. "Keep your head up"--in the face of both enemies and potential allies. Those words ring out strong today, when this society still marches young Black men in chains to judgment and punishment. Keep your head up, youngblood! It is not we who are the criminals. Keep your head up--we are not defeated or dead yet. There's more to come...including liberation.
There is the moment in the film when the Black abolitionist Theodore Joadson (played by Morgan Freeman) revisits the Amistad, to search for evidence. Joadson suddenly confronts the bloodstains and shackles dangling in the darkness of the ship's hold. He is gripped with horror at what is being done to Africans in such ships. And then he is suddenly seized with fear. Even with property and freeman status, Joadson can feel the closeness and danger of the chain gang.
And perhaps most powerful of all, when a young Mende interpreter is found, Cinqué, in his jail cell, begins to tell his story of capture and enslavement: when he and other kidnapped Africans were marched to the coastal slave fort and then packed naked into the holds of a Portuguese slave ship. We witness the dehumanization and the powerful spirit to survive. The captured Africans are brought on deck to watch as two of them are beaten to death. As blood from the whipping splatters onto Cinqué's face, a woman throws herself overboard with her baby--choosing death over slavery.
The violence Cinqué led on the Amistad has snapped into place, into context--who now can deny the justice of the Africans' machetes that night?
In hundreds of movie theaters, tears of sadness and recognition have been shed as we watch as people are literally thrown off the slave ship in mid-ocean and sink into blue waters. This Middle Passage is the gate through which millions of Africans entered the American nightmare.
There is the unforgettable scene, after the Africans have won their freedom in court, and audiences in the theaters have cheered in celebration. The Africans are told by their lawyer Roger Baldwin (played by Matthew McConaughey) that the case has been appealed. They are not, after all, free.
Cinqué strips off the clothes of U.S. "civilization," tosses them into the bonfire and demands to know, "What kind of a place is this? How can you live like this?" How many today--trapped in the U.S. courts and prisons, snared by the system's false promises and murderous intentions--have been there.
And there is the humor--when the Africans try to decipher the grim-faced hymn-singing abolitionists ("Are they entertainers?") and earnest lawyers ("They are speaking complete gibberish!").
Here is a film that, in the final analysis, upholds a fundamental truth of human society: it is right to rebel. The raw violence on the deck of the Amistad is shown to be justified--and more--it is openly upheld as heroic. How rare it is for a Hollywood film to take such a stand.
At the same time, the very fact that such a film is so rare underscores the inequalities in the dominant culture of this society. The Middle Passage has never before been really portrayed on the Hollywood screen, and the story of how Black people came to America has not hit mainstream U.S. culture like this since Roots 20 years ago. We are struck by the deep inequality in the cultural arena--where films like Haile Gerima's Sankofa, a powerful story of slavery and rebellion, struggle for distribution and Black directors still cannot get the financial backing to do a film like Amistad.
There are many stories about the lives of the many different oppressed people, from both past and present, that lie buried (and more accurately, suppressed)--just like the story of the Amistad mutiny. Amistad's co-producer Debbie Allen remarked to Essence magazine that the story of Amistad is "a little drop in a big bucket of blood memory we need to share with the world." And the appearance of Amistad, and the reception it is receiving among oppressed people, underscores the urgency to fight hard for a revolutionary society--where the culture of oppressed people can flower, where artists can tell these many stories, and where the resources of society are put in the hands of the oppressed to transform the world.
White Gloves and Slave Chains
There are many controversies raging around Amistad. But we think the most important questions are: What is its overall effect among the masses of people? Does this film instill a burning hatred for the system of slavery? Does it encourage or discourage resistance to oppression? In the main does it strengthen or does it weaken the ways the ruling class uses to justify its oppression of Black people? In short: is it a good thing or a bad thing that millions of people are going to see Amistad?
Overall, the collaboration between producer Debbie Allen and director Steven Spielberg has created a powerful and positive work of art that is inspiring and disturbing audiences wherever it is shown.
While Amistad's treatment of historical events is "higher than life," it basically captures the story and the players of this important struggle. At a White House state dinner, we watch Senator John Calhoun pull on his white gloves and coldly threaten civil war, as he describes the centrality of slavery to the southern plantation class. The film introduces us to a supporter of the Amistad Africans, Lewis Tappen, who displays the abolitionist movement's distinctive mix of human passion and merchant puritanism. And in the White House, we see how the fraying compromise at the heart of the U.S. government has reduced President Martin Van Buren to befuddled mediocrity and knee-jerk concessions to the Southern slaveowners. And through it all, we accompany the towering figure of Cinqué as he leads the people in their fight for freedom.
But Amistad runs into problems in the way it describes the motivation of some of the key class forces in the struggle. Alongside its powerful portrayals of the right, and necessity, of the oppressed to overthrow their oppressors, the film seems to suggest that Black people might win their freedom with the ideals of the American Revolution. The film poses the central political issue of the times and the Amistad court case as a question of "will the United States live up to the ideals of its founding fathers, or will it leave those principles unfulfilled?"
A key dramatic purpose assigned to the fictional character of Black abolitionist Joadson is to challenge ex-president John Quincy Adams on this point. Will these ideals be realized? And will Adams, personally, rise to the challenge of defending them?
Morgan Freeman is saddled with the job of pleading for the self-realization of "American democracy"--and as a result Joadson comes across as stiff and mournful--as though his oversized hat and coat were weighted down with too much respect for the bourgeoisie. Joadson emerges as a pale reflection of the early Black abolitionists--like the fiery agitator David Walker whose famous 1829 "Appeal" gave this advice to the slaves about insurrection: "If you commence, make sure work--do not trifle, for they will not trifle with you...kill or be killed."
In the dramatic courtroom climax to the film, John Quincy Adams tells the Supreme Court that the problems of the day--the case of the Amistad Africans and the larger issue of slavery--can be solved by returning to the principles of the "ancestors." Adams repeats the words of the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal." But the contradiction is stark as Adams walks among the statues of the "Founding Fathers" in the courtroom--including the slaveowners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
The United States has, of course, never "lived up" to the idea that "all men are created equal." The words of the Declaration of Independence did not apply to the captured Africans, enslaved on the plantations, or the Native Americans, or women. And even as the label "all men" has--over two long centuries--slowly been extended, on paper, to include women, Black people, Native people and propertyless classes, in reality even that shallow promise of "equality before the law" has remained a lie. Aware of this contradiction, Amistad director Steven Spielberg points out, in Vibe magazine (February 1998), that "Blacks have been fucked by the American legal system, which hasn't changed very much from 1839 to 1997."
In telling the Amistad story there are some complicated historical realities to deal with that would pose challenges for anyone creating such a work of art. On one hand, at that moment of history, the Northern capitalist class (who Adams represented all his life) was moving to challenge the power of Southern slaveowners within the United States. The actual verdict in the Amistad court case which freed Cinqué and the African mutineers did not question the legality of slavery within the United States. Politically, however, the case, the public campaign around it, and the participation of John Quincy Adams signaled the approach of war. Portraying Adams, Anthony Hopkins proclaims to the Supreme Court, "If it means civil war, then let it come and when it does let it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution." This does, correctly, show that some political representatives of the capitalist class, like Adams, were motivated by the idea of carrying out a more thoroughgoing bourgeois democratic revolution.
At one point in the film Amistad, ex-President John Quincy Adams tells the prisoner Cinqué, "We find ourselves together by some mysterious set of circumstances." The fictional dialogue captures a certain historical reality. But, in this temporary alliance of slaves and capitalists, the different forces were motivated by extremely different class interests. The slaves wanted freedom from slavery, but the northern capitalists wanted the freedom to consolidate the capitalist mode of production as the dominant economic system in the country.
In fact, the ideals of the U.S. "ancestors" did not, and could not, lead to the liberation of Black people. The principles of that Declaration were, in fact, applied after the American Revolution, when those same authors wrote the U.S. Constitution, which legalized slavery and counted each Black person as only three-fifths of a human being. And the ideals of Adams' "last battle of the American Revolution" became realized as the modern capitalist state emerged from the civil war and consolidated its grip on the continental United States during the last half of the 1800s.
That realization of the capitalist ideals meant the imposing of new forms of oppression on the freed Black slaves. The Northern capitalists helped bind Black people into Jim Crow segregation and plantation sharecropping.
Today there are a lot of people who think the language of the Declaration of Independence embodies timeless ideals that can liberate people. But Bob Avakian has pointed out that this is not possible: "The Declaration of Independence is not anything anybody wants to make out of it: it was written in a very definite historical context and has a very definite social and class content... The general declarations it contains about the equality of all men, their inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and so on assume their meaning according to this actual and overall content--otherwise they have no real, concrete meaning."
"The answer to the question, what if the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence were really applied?, is that they have been in the U.S. itself and generally in all bourgeois societies; and the time is long since past when that is the best and highest that humanity is capable of achieving."*
Keeping this problem in mind, we urge people to see the movie Amistad, to appreciate its power and artistry, to share in the inspiring story it unfolds, and to explore the complex issues of struggle and liberation that it raises.
* "Declaration of Independence, Equal Opportunity and Bourgeois Right," Bob Avakian, RW No. 230.