Hope you found the film and are watching it. Now, we normally choose movies which are not only connected to a syllabus subject and are interesting for discussion, but also very good. I must say that I coincide with many reviewers in considering Amistad -at least partially- a failed film, often lacking in rhythm, and, in some aspects, innacurate and even pretencious. As in any Spielberg movie, there are technical facets which stand out for their excellence, like -in this case- the film’s photography. The performances are also very good (specially Djimon Hounsou and Cinqué, and Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams), but some of the characters are caricaturesque (President Van Buren) or flat (Freeman’s character is good example;it is not a historical character, and was probably introduced in order to have black person apart form the slaves, but Freeman’s talent is largely squandered in mere physical presence).
Of course, you may have a different opinion about all of this and hopefully we will try to share our views in class. The question remains, though, why did I choose this movie? Well, in spite of its failings, Amistad also has important virtues. The first reason is that the film is very good at providing a raw portrait of the conditions of the slave traffic and the cultural context of slavery in America; the second, that it is based on a historical event (notwithstanding Spielberg’s inaccuracies); the third, that it offers some extraordinary rhetorical moments, at the hands of Hopkins/Adams. His speech at the end of the film, though with sentimental overtones, is a classic piece.
Historically, John Quincly Adams was not only President of the US, but also a great orator and a professor of rhetoric. I quote: “Adams’ devotion to classical rhetoric shaped his response to public issues. Many of Adams’s idiosyncratic positions were rooted in his abiding devotion to the Ciceronian ideal of the citizen-orator “speaking to promote the welfare of the polis. Adams adapted these classical republican ideals of public oratory to America, viewing the multilevel political structure as ripe for “the renaissance of Demosthenic eloquence.” Adams’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory (1810) looks at the fate of ancient oratory, the necessity of liberty for it to flourish, and its importance as a unifying element for a new nation of diverse cultures and beliefs.”
Here are two links which I hope you will find interesting: the first, is the Wikipedia article about the film; the second, comes from a site about the real case of the Amistad.
And finally, some questions for you to consider and write notes about. We’ll discuss them in class.
- What do you learn about the slave traffic from Africa and the cultural conditions of slavery in America?
- Why does the case become so difficult and so long?
- Read about the real case of the Amistad and in the Wikipedia article. How is the film historically inacurate?
- Pay attention to Quicy Adam’s speech at the end of the film. What makes it a great classic piece?
- Discuss the topic of communication and language in the film
- The character of Lewis Tappan (Morgan Freeman’s associate in the emancipation’s cause) is presented as someone who is an anti-abolitionist for the wrong reasons. Which are these?
- The film tries to explore -probably not so successfully- some metaphors, such as the story of Cinqué and the lion and the Biblical story of Christ. Can you comment on these?
- What is your opinion of the film?