The Amistad: The Black Viewer’s Movie Guide

When one takes to heart the Dick Gregory adage– that Hollywood has never spent a penny to entertain us– one can more accurately view Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Bro. Gregory, of course, meant that every flickering image has a purpose and function to maintain the balance of power for White people. The Amistad is a textbook example of this well-established principle. The following is a guide for the conscious viewing of this pernicious production. Motown’s Norman Whitfield provides the rule of thumb: “People, believe half of what you see, Oh, and none of what you hear.”

The Amistad was a Spanish slaver which was forcibly taken over by its former cargo, 53 African Black people. The Connecticut coast guard apprehended the “mutineers” and imprisoned them on the charge of murder. The movie purports to describe the legal battle that ensued all the way to the Supreme Court — spreading lies with every scene.

1) The purpose of Amistad is made clear even before the movie begins. Indeed, in the promotional movie poster, Spielberg exonerates the White man in the crime of Black slavery. Above the title is the movie’s ambiguous operating premise: “Freedom cannot be given. It is our right at birth. But there are moments in time when it must be taken.” If freedom MUST be taken, Spielberg reasons, then, of course, the takers are within their rights and even have a responsibility to participate in the slave trade.

2) When the Amistad crew is subdued and the ship taken over by the Africans, the first filmed act is a primitive battle between two African rivals who yell at one another while angrily vying for power. They do not appear to have the ability to strategize and communicate among themselves about their opportunity to refocus on the common need to escape. This theme of tribalism and savagery is one that is constantly reinforced throughout the film. In a scene where the White attorney first visits the captives in their dungeon, the Africans have staked-out “territory,” presumably along tribal lines. The subtle message is that these Africans deserve to be slaves. This concept is central to the movie’s true purpose.

The “Americanized” Blacks (who are never explicitly identified as slaves) are starkly different in carriage and comportment than the “savage” Africans. The “Americans” are refined and even genteel, festooned in the British style with powdered wigs and ruffles. Though of the servant class, they are well-treated and content and pointedly “civilized.” They are in training, one is led to assume, to be like Morgan Freeman–a “free” negro of means. This image-juxtapositioning by Spielberg is central to a pro-slavery argument advanced by Whites in the mid-1800’s. Are not Africans better off in slavery in America than as spear-chuckers in the jungle? Spielberg’s answer is: “Clearly, Yes.”

3) The Amistad Africans themselves are almost immediately turned into props by Spielberg’s script. Once these Africans are deposited into the dungeon, the rest of the Black Holocaust is played out in courtrooms and parlors among White people. They alone have the power to determine the fate of the Africans regardless of the desires of the Africans themselves. This makes White viewers comfortable. Firmly in chains, the life and death matters of these simple Africans can now be litigated by White people. Ultimately, Spielberg’s goal is to fortify and exonerate a system and a people that profitted from the despicable trade in Black humanity even at the expense of its Black victims. The point here is never to compromise, or even question, America’s heritage and worldwide image as having been “founded on freedom, justice and equality.” Slavery, in Spielberg’s vision, is merely a bump in the road.

4) True to the “good Nazi” theme of Spielberg’s Jewish Holocaust movie Schindler’s List, the Amistad is offered up with a group of historically bizarre creations of the Hollywood propagandists-a good White man and a 19th century “free” Black aristocrat. Contrary to Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the cantankerous former president John Quincy Adams, who represented the Amistad rebels in the Supreme Court, he was no lover of the Black man. His home state of Massachusetts was making so much money on slavery that Adams absolutely favored it. The cotton mills of Lawrence and Lowell and the banks of downtown Boston all would have collapsed without slavery and the money it generated. He has other racist credentials:

·When Adams was a diplomat after the Revolutionary and the 1812 Wars, he went to the British on behalf of slaveholders to attempt to get their slaves back.

·He believed that Congress had no right to abolish slavery where it existed.

·He believed that the ultimate solution for the Black Man would be widespread interbreeding, which he said “would be the extirpation (extermination) of the African race upon the continent, by the gradual bleaching process of intermixture, where the white portion is already so predominant…”