Amistad (film)

Amistad is a 1997 American historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the true story of the events in 1839 aboard the slave ship La Amistad, during which Mende tribesmen abducted for the slave trade managed to gain control of their captors' ship off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by the Washington, a U.S. revenue cutter. The case was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841.

Theatrical release poster
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Produced by
Written byDavid Franzoni
Music byJohn Williams
CinematographyJanusz Kamiński
Edited byMichael Kahn
Distributed byDreamWorks Pictures
Release date
  • December 10, 1997 (1997-12-10)
Running time
154 minutes
CountryUnited States
  • English
  • Mende
  • Spanish
  • Portuguese
Budget$36 million
Box office$44.2 million

Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, and Matthew McConaughey had starring roles. David Franzoni's screenplay was based on the book Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (1987), by the historian Howard Jones.


La Amistad is the name of a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the United States in 1839. It is carrying African slaves as its cargo. As the ship is crossing from Cuba to the United States, Cinqué, a leader of the Africans, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship. The mutineers spare the lives of two Spanish navigators to help them sail the ship back to Africa. Instead, the navigators misdirect the Africans and sail north to the east coast of the United States, where the ship is stopped by the American Navy, and the living Africans imprisoned as runaway slaves.

In an unfamiliar country and not speaking a single word of English, the Africans find themselves in a legal battle. United States Attorney William S. Holabird brings charges of piracy and murder. Secretary of State John Forsyth, on behalf of President Martin Van Buren (who is campaigning for re-election), represents the claim of Queen Isabella II of Spain that the Africans are slaves and are property of Spain based on a treaty. Two Naval officers, Thomas R. Gedney, and Richard W. Meade, claim them as salvage while the two Spanish navigators, Pedro Montez and Jose Ruiz, produce proof of purchase. A lawyer named Roger Sherman Baldwin, hired by the abolitionist Lewis Tappan and his black associate Theodore Joadson, decides to defend the Africans.

Baldwin argues that the Africans had been captured in Africa to be sold in the Americas illegally. Baldwin proves through documents found hidden aboard La Amistad that the African people were initially cargo belonging to a Portuguese slave ship, the Tecora. Therefore, the Africans were free citizens of another country and not slaves at all. In light of this evidence, the staff of President Van Buren has the judge presiding over the case replaced by Judge Coglin, who is younger and believed to be impressionable and easily influenced. Consequently, seeking to make the case more personal, on the advice of former American president (and lawyer) John Quincy Adams, Baldwin and Joadson find James Covey, a former slave who speaks both Mende and English. Cinque tells his story at trial: Cinque was kidnapped by slave traders outside his village, and held in the slave fortress of Lomboko, where thousands of captives were held under heavy guard. Cinque and many others were then sold to the Tecora, where they were held in the brig of the ship. The captives were beaten and whipped, and at times, were given so little food that they had to eat the food from each other's faces. One day, 50 captives were thrown overboard. Later on, the ship arrived in Havana, Cuba. Those captives that were not sold at auction were handed over to La Amistad.

United States Attorney Holabird attacks Cinqué's "tale" of being captured and kept in the slave fortress, and especially questions the throwing of precious cargo overboard. Holabird contends that Cinque could have been made a debt slave by his fellow Sierra Leoneans. However, the Royal Navy's fervent abolitionist Captain Fitzgerald of the West Africa Squadron backs up Cinqué's account. Baldwin shows from the Tecora's inventory that the number of African people taken as slaves was reduced by 50. Fitzgerald explains that some slave ships when interdicted do this to get rid of the evidence for their crime. But in the Tecora's case, they had underestimated the amount of provisions necessary for their journey. As the tension rises, Cinqué stands up from his seat and repeatedly cries, "Give us, us free!"

Judge Coglin rules in favor of the Africans. After pressure from Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina on President Van Buren, the case is appealed to the Supreme Court. Despite refusing to help when the case was initially presented, Adams agrees to assist with the case. At the Supreme Court, he makes an impassioned and eloquent plea for their release, and is successful.

The Lomboko slave fortress is liberated by the Royal Marines under the command of Captain Fitzgerald. After all the slaves were hurried out of the fortress, Fitzgerald orders the ship's cannon to destroy it. He then dictates a letter to Forsyth saying that he was right—the slave fortress doesn't exist.

Because of the release of the Africans, Van Buren loses his re-election campaign, and tension builds between the North and the South, which would eventually culminate in the Civil War.


Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun also appears in the film as Justice Joseph Story.


Actress and director Debbie Allen had run across some books about the mutiny on La Amistad and brought the subject to HBO Pictures, which chose to make a film adaptation of the subject. She later presented the project to DreamWorks SKG to release the film, which agreed. Steven Spielberg, who wanted to stretch his artistic wings after making The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), was interested in directing it for DreamWorks, which he also co-founded, as well.

Filming of the exterior and interior court scenes took place at the Old Colony House in Newport, RI, and then moved to Sonalyst Studios. The opening scene was filmed on a sound stage in Universal Studios. Production then went to Puerto Rico for the scenes set in Africa, including those with the slave fortress.

Post-production was done rarely with Spielberg, due to his commitment to another DreamWorks film, Saving Private Ryan.


Amistad: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Film score by
ReleasedDecember 9, 1997
StudioSony Pictures Studios
GenreFilm score
ProducerJohn Williams
John Williams chronology
Seven Years in Tibet
Amistad: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Saving Private Ryan
Professional ratings
Review scores
Movie Wave

The musical score for Amistad was composed by John Williams. A soundtrack album was released on December 9, 1997 by DreamWorks Records.[1] The lyrics from "Dry Your Tears, Afrika" are from a 1967 poem by French-speaking Ivorian poet Bernard Binlin Dadié. The words are primarily in Mende, one of Sierra Leone's major languages.

Track listing
1."Dry Your Tears, Afrika" (vocals performed by Pamela Dillard)4:18
2."Sierra Leone, 1839 and the Capture of Cinque" (vocals performed by Pamela Dillard)3:39
3."Crossing the Atlantic" (vocals performed by Pamela Dillard)3:21
4."Cinque's Theme"4:12
5."Cinque's Memories of Home"2:35
6."Middle Passage"5:18
7."The Long Road to Justice"3:16
8."July 4, 1839"4:01
9."Mr. Adams Takes the Case"7:15
10."La Amistad Remembered"5:08
11."The Liberation of Lomboko"4:09
12."Adams' Summation"2:55
13."Going Home" (vocals performed by Pamela Dillard)2:02
14."Dry Your Tears, Afrika (Reprise)"3:37

Historical accuracy

Many academics, including Columbia University professor Eric Foner, have criticized Amistad for historical inaccuracy and the misleading characterizations of the Amistad case as a "turning point" in the American perspective on slavery. [2] Foner wrote:

In fact, the Amistad case revolved around the Atlantic slave trade — by 1840 outlawed by international treaty — and had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery as a domestic institution. Incongruous as it may seem, it was perfectly possible in the nineteenth century to condemn the importation of slaves from Africa while simultaneously defending slavery and the flourishing slave trade within the United States.

Amistad's problems go far deeper than such anachronisms as President Martin Van Buren campaigning for re-election on a whistle-stop train tour (in 1840, candidates did not campaign), or people constantly talking about the impending Civil War, which lay twenty years in the future.

Other reported inaccuracies include:

  • Despite what the film suggests, the actual Supreme Court decision reversed District and Circuit decrees regarding the Africans' conveyance back to Africa; they were to be deemed free, but the U.S. government could not take them back to Africa, as they had arrived on American soil as free people.[3]
  • The film version of Adams' closing speech before the Supreme Court and the court's decision as read by Justice Joseph Story bear no resemblance to the much longer historical versions; they are not even fair summaries.[4][5]
  • During the scene depicting the destruction of the Lomboko slave fortress by a Royal Navy schooner, the vessel's captain refers to another officer as "ensign". This rank has never been used by the Royal Navy.[6]


Critical response

Amistad received mainly positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film receives an approval rating of 77% based on reviews from 64 critics, with an average score of 6.9/10. its consensus reads: "Heartfelt without resorting to preachiness, Amistad tells an important story with engaging sensitivity and absorbing skill."[7]

Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today summed up the feelings of many reviewers when she wrote: "as Spielberg vehicles go, Amistad — part mystery, action thriller, courtroom drama, even culture-clash comedy — lands between the disturbing lyricism of Schindler's List and the storybook artificiality of The Color Purple."[8] Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars, writing:

"Amistad," like Spielberg's "Schindler's List," is [...] about the ways good men try to work realistically within an evil system to spare a few of its victims. [...] "Schindler's List" works better as narrative because it is about a risky deception, while "Amistad" is about the search for a truth that, if found, will be small consolation to the millions of existing slaves. As a result, the movie doesn't have the emotional charge of Spielberg's earlier film — or of "The Color Purple," which moved me to tears. [...] What is most valuable about "Amistad" is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims.[9]

In 2014, the movie was one of several discussed by Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic in an article concerning white savior narratives in film, calling it 'sanctimonious drivel.'[10]

Morgan Freeman is very proud of the movie: "I loved the film. I really did. I had a moment of err, during the killings. I thought that was a little over-wrought. But he (Spielberg) wanted to make a point and I understood that."[11]

Box office

The film earned $44,229,441 at the box office in the United States, debuting at No. 5 on December 10, 1997.[12]

Awards and honors

Amistad was nominated for Academy Awards in four categories: Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Original Dramatic Score (John Williams), Best Cinematography (Janusz Kamiński), and Best Costume Design (Ruth E. Carter).[13]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Award Best Cinematography Janusz Kamiński Nominated
Best Costume Design Ruth E. Carter Nominated
Best Original Dramatic Score John Williams Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Nominated
American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases Janusz Kamiński Nominated
Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design for a Feature Film Rick Carter (production designer),
Tony Fanning, Christopher Burian-Mohr, William James Teegarden (art directors)
Lauren Polizzi, John Berger, Paul Sonski (assistant art directors)
Nicholas Lundy, Hugh Landwehr (new york art directors)
Chicago Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Nominated
Most Promising Actor Djimon Hounsou Nominated
Critics' Choice Movie Award Best Film Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Won
David di Donatello Best Foreign Film Steven Spielberg Nominated
Directors Guild of America Award Outstanding Directing – Feature Film Nominated
European Film Awards Achievement in World Cinema
(also for Good Will Hunting)
Stellan Skarsgård Won
Golden Globe Award Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Djimon Hounsou Nominated
Best Director Steven Spielberg Nominated
Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Anthony Hopkins Nominated
Grammy Award Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television John Williams Nominated
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture Djimon Hounsou Won
Outstanding Motion Picture Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture Morgan Freeman Won
Online Film Critics Society Best Supporting Actor Anthony Hopkins Nominated
Producers Guild of America Award Best Theatrical Motion Picture Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson Nominated
Political Film Society Awards Exposé Nominated
Satellite Award Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Djimon Hounsou Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay David Franzoni Nominated
Best Art Direction and Production Design Rick Carter Nominated
Best Cinematography Janusz Kamiński Won
Best Costume Design Ruth E. Carter Nominated
Best Director Steven Spielberg Nominated
Best Editing Michael Kahn Nominated
Best Film – Drama Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, Colin Wilson Nominated
Best Original Score John Williams Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Award Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role Anthony Hopkins Nominated
Southeastern Film Critics Association Best Supporting Actor 2nd place

See also


  1. "Amistad Soundtrack (John Williams)". Soundtrack.Net. Autotelics. Retrieved December 20, 2015.
  2. Foner, Eric. "The Amistad Case in Fact and Film", History Matters. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  3. Story, Joseph. "The United States, Appellants, v. The Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, Her Tackle, Apparel, and Furniture, Together With Her Cargo, and the Africans Mentioned and Described in the Several Libels and Claims, Appellees", Supreme Court of the United States 40 U.S. 518; 10 L. Ed. 826 (January 1841 Term), Cornell University Law School. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  4. "The United States, Appellants, v. The Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad...".
  5. "JQA Adams Before the Supreme Court", History Central.
  6. British Royal Navy ranks (including relevant time period) "Officer Ranks in the Royal Navy" Archived 2014-10-11 at the Wayback Machine, Royal Naval Museum. Accessed February 15, 2012.
  7. "Amistad Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 2011-02-15.
  8. Wloszczyna, Susan. "Amistad review", USA Today. Accessed December 8, 2011.
  9. Ebert, Roger (December 12, 1997). "Amistad :: :: Reviews". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved Dec 8, 2011.
  10. Berlatsky, Noah (January 17, 2014). "12 Years a Slave: Yet Another Oscar-Nominated 'White Savior' Story". The Atlantic. Retrieved May 14, 2014.
  12. "Amistad". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-12-08.
  13. "Academy Awards: Amistad". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2011-12-08.
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