Amistad is a 1997 historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg based on the true story of an uprising in 1839 by newly captured African slaves that took place aboard the ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba, the subsequent voyage to the Northeastern United States, and the legal battle that followed their capture by a United States revenue cutter. It shows how, even though the case was won at the federal district court level, it was appealed by President Martin Van Buren to the Supreme Court, and how former President John Quincy Adams took part in the proceedings.
The film begins in the depths of the schooner La Amistad, a slave-ship carrying captured West Africans into slavery. The film’s protagonist, Sengbe Pieh (Djimon Hounsou), most known by his Mende name, “Cinqué” (means fifth), painstakingly picks a nail out of the ship’s structure and uses it to pick the lock on his shackles. Freeing a number of his companions, Cinquè initiates a rebellion on board the storm-tossed vessel. In the ensuing fighting, several Africans and most of the ship’s crew are killed, except Ruiz and Montez, the owners of the ship, who the Africans believes can sail them back to West Africa.
After six weeks have passed, the ship is running out of food and fresh water, and Cinquè is growing angry with Yamba who believes keeping the Spaniards alive is the only way to get back to Africa. The next day, they sight land. Unsure of their location, a group of them take one of the ship’s boats to shore to fetch fresh water. While there, La Amistad is found by a military vessel bearing an American flag – the Spaniards have tricked the Africans by sailing directly for the United States. Captured by the Americans, the Amistad Africans are taken to a municipal jail in New Haven, Connecticut, where the ship’s occupants, and a tearful Cinquè, are thrown into a grim dungeon, awaiting trial.
The film’s focus now shifts to Washington, D.C., where a session in the House of Representatives introduces John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), the elderly former President and sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives. While strolling in the gardens, Adams is introduced to two of the country’s leading abolitionists: the elderly freed slave, Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Christian activist, Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård), both of whom are leading shipping magnates in New England and co-proprietors of the pro-abolitionist newssheet “The Emancipator“. The two have heard of the plight of the Amistad Africans and attempt to enlist Adams to help their cause. Adams, apparently verging on senility, refuses to help, claiming that he neither condemns nor condones slavery. News of the Amistad incident also reaches current President of the United States, Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), who is bombarded with demands for compensation from the Spanish Queen Isabella II of Spain (Anna Paquin). At a preliminary hearing in a district court, the Africans are charged with “insurrection on the high seas”, and the case rapidly dissolves into conflicting claims of property ownership from the Kingdom of Spain, the United States, the owners of the slaves and of La Amistad, and the American captain and first mate of the vessel responsible for re-capturing the slave-ship. Aware that they cannot fight the case on moral grounds, the two abolitionists enlist the help of a young attorney specializing in property law; Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey).
At the jail, Baldwin and the abolitionists, along with Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr., a professor of linguistics, attempt to talk to the Amistad Africans, but neither side is able to understand anything the other party says. In the prison, events among the Africans are accelerating. Yamba, Cinquè’s apparent rival for authority amongst the Africans, has become interested in Christianity, what he thinks is the way things happen spiritually and is now resigned to his death, believing that execution will send them to a pleasant afterlife. The death of one of the Africans provokes them into a furious demonstration against the American authorities, screaming and chanting in their native language. As the hearings drag on, Baldwin and Joadson approach Adams for advice. Adams advises them that, in court, the side with the best story usually wins. He then asks them what their story is. Unable to answer, they decide that their priority must be to find a way to communicate with the Africans. They begin to walk round the city docks, counting numbers in the Mende language. They find a black sailor in the Royal Navy, James Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Using Covey as a translator, Baldwin and his companions are able to talk to Cinquè. In his first speaking role in the courtroom, Cinquè, through a series of flashbacks, tells the haunting story of how he became a slave. Cinquè, a peasant farmer and young husband and father in West Africa, was kidnapped by African slave-hunters and taken to the slave fortress of Lomboko, an illegal facility in the British protectorate of Sierra Leone. There, he and hundreds of other captured Africans were loaded onto the transatlantic slave-ship (Tecora). Cinquè tells of the various horrors of the Middle Passage, including frequent rape, horrific torture and random executions carried out by the crew including the deaths of fifty people deliberately drowned by being thrown in the ocean. Upon their arrival in Cuba, Cinquè was sold at a slave market and purchased, along with many other Tecora survivors, by the owners of La Amistad. Once aboard La Amistad, Cinquè was able to free himself of his shackles and began the slaves’ rebellion for freedom.
The courtroom drama continues as District Attorney William S. Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite) and Secretary of State John Forsyth (David Paymer) press their case for property rights and dismiss Cinquè’s story as a mere piece of fiction. While exploring the impounded vessel La Amistad for much-needed evidence to support the Africans’ claims, Baldwin happens upon a notebook, stuffed into a crevice by Ruiz and Montez to conceal the evidence of illegal slave-trading. Using the book as hard evidence of illegal trading, Baldwin calls expert witnesses including Captain Fitzgerald (Peter Firth), a British naval officer assigned to patrol the West African coastline to enforce the British Empire’s anti-slavery policies. As Fitzgerald is cross-examined by the haughty Holabird, tension in the courtroom rises, ultimately prompting Cinquè to leap from his seat and cry “Give us, us, free.” over and over, a heartfelt plea using the English he has learned. Cinquè’s plea touches many, including the judge and in a court ruling, Judge Coglin (Jeremy Northam) dismisses all claims of ownership. He then rules that the Africans were captured illegally and were not born on plantations; orders the arrest of the Amistad’s owners on charges of slave-trading; and authorizes the United States to convey the Amistad Africans back to Africa at the expense of the nation.
While Cinquè, Joadson, Baldwin, and the jubilant Africans celebrate their victory, a state dinner at the White House threatens to overturn the ruling. While conversing with the Spanish Ambassador to Washington, Senator John C. Calhoun (Arliss Howard) launches into a damning diatribe aimed at President Van Buren, emphasizing the economic importance of slaves in the South, and ends his tirade with a concealed but clear threat that should the government set a precedent for abolition by releasing the Amistad Africans, the South will have little choice but to go to war with the North. With his advisors warning that the Amistad incident could bring the United States one big step closer to civil war, President Van Buren orders that the case be submitted to the Supreme Court, dominated by its Southern slave-owning judges. Furious, Mr. Tappan splits with Joadson and Baldwin, who break the news to an enraged and disgusted Cinquè. In need of an ally with legal background in the intricacies of Supreme Court workings, Baldwin and Joadson meet again with John Quincy Adams, who has been following the case carefully. Adams, aware that Cinquè is now refusing to talk to Baldwin, invites the African leader to his home. While Adams gives him a rambling tour of his greenhouse, Cinquè’s emotional reaction to seeing a West African violet, native to his homeland, convinces Adams to assist the case. During preparations for the Supreme Court hearing, Cinquè tells Adams that he is invoking the spirits of his ancestors. This makes a strong impression upon Adams, presumably because he thinks of his own father, President John Adams, one of America’s founding fathers.
At the Supreme Court, John Quincy Adams gives a long and passionate speech in defense of the Africans. He argues that if Cinquè were white and had rebelled against the British, the United States would have exalted him as a hero; and that the Africans’ rebellion to gain their freedom was no different to the Americans’ rebellion against their oppressors some seventy years earlier. Arguing that condemning the Amistad Africans would render the principles and ideals of the Constitution worthless, he exhorts the judges to free the Africans. He tells the court how, before the hearing, his client invoked the spirit of his ancestors. Adams then invokes the spirits of America’s founding fathers, including his own father. In a poignant shot, the camera frames Adams with the marble bust of his father behind him. Adams invokes the Declaration of Independence. He concludes by arguing that, if a verdict in his favor should hasten a civil war, that war will simply be the final battle of the American Revolution. His case made, the United States awaits the Supreme Court’s ruling.
On the day of judgment, Justice Joseph Story (Associate Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun) announces the Supreme Court’s decision on the case. Because the Amistad Africans were illegally kidnapped from their homes in Africa, United States laws on slave ownership do not apply. Furthermore, since that was the case, the Amistad Africans were within their rights to use force to escape their confinement. The Supreme Court authorizes the release of the Africans and their conveyance back to Africa, if they so wish. Legally freed for the second and final time, Cinquè bids emotional farewells to his companions; shaking Adams’s hand, giving Joadson his lion tooth which is his only memento of Africa and thanking Baldwin in English and in Mende.
The end of the film depicts various scenes. Royal Marines assault the Lomboko Slave Fortress, killing the slavers and freeing the kidnapped Africans held within the dungeons. With the fortress evacuated, Captain Fitzgerald, orders his warship of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Anti-Slavery Squadron to open fire on the facility thus destroying it. Interspersed with this are scenes of Martin Van Buren losing his election campaign, Isabella II learning of the Africans’ release and the Battle of Atlanta from the American Civil War. The final scenes depict Cinquè and the freed Africans returning to Africa, dressed in white, the West African color of victory, and accompanied by James Covey. A postscript informs viewers that Cinquè returned to find his country in civil war and his wife and child missing, probably sold into slavery.